SACRAMENTO — As California rolls toward a train wreck with federal and state laws, voting activists told state elections officials that Diebold and its voting machines aren't welcome along for the ride.

Witness after witness — Bay Area liberals seasoned with a few Libertarians and Republicans — called on state officials Thursday to block Diebold's voting machines from the nation's largest elections market, casting the firm as synonymous with lost trust and vote "theft" in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

In a packed hearing punctuated by chanting, activists demanded paper ballots be counted by hand, by computers running open-source software if absolutely necessary, but never by secret software closely held by a company known for executives' support of Republican candidates.

"If you value democracy, you will not certify these hackable machines with secret mechanisms that are considered proprietary," said Berkeley's Phoebe Anne Sorgen. "You will dump Diebold Elections Systems and software."

"If you throw them out of this state, they're dead. Their backs are up against the wall," said Jim March, a Sacramento Republican and activist for BlackBoxVoting.org.

Looking over the angry crowd of more than 200, the chairman of California's Voting Systems and Procedures Panel decided against making a recommendation to Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, a break with a tradition of prompt approvals of voting systems.

If McPherson follows the activists' advice, counties will flirt with breaking January deadlines in state and federal law. The federal Help America Vote Act requires handicapped-accessible voting machines in every polling place nationwide. California law requires any county using touch-screen voting machines to offer a paper printout so voters can verify their electronic ballot choices, and so local elections officials have a paper record for recounts.

Those laws are driving counties to shop for new voting equipment that ultimately will be the tools of democracy for much of California in the next congressional and presidential elections, not to mention local races and initiatives. Two proposed voting systems by Diebold and Election Systems & Software are vying to count those votes, and if approved by the state probably would be used by at least half of Bay Area voters.

For now, only one voting machine made by Sequoia Voting Systems comes close to meeting both laws, though even it hasn't been proved to work in the polyglot languages of California voters nor approved for primary elections.

"Counties have to have certified voting equipment," said Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Conny McCormack, president of a state association of local elections officials. She said they're getting nervous: "The whole environment is uncertain."

Diebold offered its system as capable across the board. Alameda County elections officials are eager to swap out their old Diebold touch screens for the new TSx machines, which print a so-called paper trail for voters to view, at an estimated cost of $5.4 million.

But it was clear Thursday that Diebold and its TSx have their own shortcomings.

The paper-trail printer failed badly and jammed in initial state tests. A new round of tests in early June on a more refined, "pre-production" unit went smoothly, though state testers noted that it still makes ratcheting sounds "like a New Year's noisemaker" and uses temporary, thermal paper.

"It seems obvious that this system is designed not to be used for a recount or a count, and that seems to be the point," said Judy Bertelsen, an East Bay activist with the California Election Protection Coalition.

Despite promises of new, tighter security controls more than a year ago, Diebold still would set important security codes and keys for elections administrators at its factory in McKinney, Texas.

The machine offers no mouth controls for paraplegics, amputees and severe arthritics. And while unimpaired voters get a paper trail, blind voters simply have their electronic ballot read back to them by the touch screen. For those reasons, handicapped advocates joined voting activists in urging rejection of the machine.

Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman@angnewspapers.com.