Despite stout public opposition, Alameda County is headed toward sticking with Diebold electronic-voting machines for the next congressional and presidential elections.

County supervisors gave the go-ahead Tuesday to negotiate a $5.4 million deal for Diebold's latest touch-screen machine, known as the TSx, equipped with a printer so voters can verify their electronic choices.

Supervisor Gail Steele said she can't operate a computer, but she's able to vote on Diebold's machines and argues "it's the way of the future."

The board's 4-1 vote adds pressure on California state elections officials to approve the new Diebold machine, which already is warehoused by the thousands in San Diego, San Joaquin and Kern counties. If approved by the state and purchased by Alameda County,

California will head into the 2006 and 2008 elections with 17,000 of the new Diebold machines, more than any state save Ohio, home of the firm's corporate headquarters.

E-voting critics lambasted Diebold and touch-screen voting for most of a four-hour hearing, saying fully computerized voting was fraught with secrecy, lax testing and a lack of voter confidence.

"We're basically talking about secret code, secret testing by the vendors and secret results," said Barbara Simons, who teaches computer science at Stanford. She advocated paper ballots, read by optical scanners at each polling place. Others wanted just human eyes and hands on the ballots.

"There is no need for electronic technology of any kind," said retired psychiatrist Don Goldmacher, co-chairman of the Voting Rights Coalition.

They reminded supervisors that nowhere else has encountered more difficulty with Diebold and its voting systems than Alameda County, with Diebold products erroneously giving thousands of Democrat votes to a Socialist in one election and breaking down by the hundreds in another election.

Gordon Wright, a Berkeley voter, says he pressed the name of one candidate in 2003, yet another candidate's name lighted up on the screen. "There's a growing number of citizens who believe these machines were designed specifically to fix elections, and I use the word fix in the sense of the Downing Street memo," he said.

Diebold marketing chief Mark Radke called Alameda's problems "more of an ongoing education process," and most supervisors fell back on the assurances of Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold and her predecessor, Brad Clark, who led the county three years ago to buy a $12 million Diebold touch-screen system.

"I really do trust our registrar of voters, who really does know a lot about this," Steele said. "And I really don't think there's one thing they would do if they thought it was illegal."

Steele led a majority in rejecting an equal or lower-cost option of using optically scanned paper ballots at the polling places, with one or two touch-screens for visually handicapped voters. Ginnold said

pollworkers have a tough time handling just one voting system.

"It's more the confusion at the polling site. I'm just really concerned about that, and that could make us look bad," said Supervisor Nate Miley. "I'm just for having some experts take a look at this and doing a poll to see what the people say."

The sole dissent came from board president Keith Carson, who said no voting system is perfect or error free.

"It's not an (issue of) anti-touch-screen or anti-electronic voting with me," he said. "To me verifiability is the fundamental issue here, because whether you are physically challenged or using a different language there has to be a way at the end of the day to verify your vote."

Los Angeles County uses paper ballots, and Alameda County would do well to explore the same, he said. Instead, Carson suggested there is "entrapment" of the county by Diebold and the press of new laws and elections that make it hard to seek an alternative. "We've already been going down the slippery route with Diebold," he said. 

In a report issued Tuesday, the Alameda County civil grand jury said members had interviewed the county's Registrar of Voters and "witnessed activities on election night," but "did not obtain sufficient information to report fully on the status of electronic voting."

Both electronic voting and mail-in balloting are issues that may be of interest to future grand juries, the report said.