The new rule, announced this week by Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, will clarify for counties which systems are approved for use in the June 2006 presidential primary election. Manufacturers of e-voting machines will have to sign contracts stating that their equipment meets the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act.
The guidelines for HAVA won't be finalized until October, McPherson said in an interview Friday. The new rule will protect counties financially if they buy a system touted as HAVA-compliant, only to learn it doesn't meet the final regulations.
"We don't know, and California voters don't know, what compliance will mean," he said. "Vendors say that as of this date they are compliant, but there may be changes to that."
The rule change follows McPherson's rejection last week of an application by North Canton, Ohio-based Diebold's e-voting machine. A test found the machine had an unacceptable rate of screen freezes and paper jams.
San Joaquin, Kern and San Diego counties had already have purchased Diebold's TSX system, spending $40 million on 13,000 machines that have been warehoused since 2004, when the state withdrew certification for some of Diebold's machines.
Counties are approaching a deadline under the federal law that requires every polling place have at least one handicapped-accessible voting machine such as a touch screen machine that allows disabled voters to cast a secret ballot.
In addition, California requires e-voting machines to have a paper trail.
It can be difficult for counties to stay up-to-date on the status of e-voting machines, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.
"It's a very fast-paced, technical and detailed process," she said. "It's hard to keep up with what's going on and it's very easy for vendors to mislead officials on qualifications."
With the HAVA guidelines expected in October, that puts a lot of pressure on counties to chose a compliant system by the Jan. 1 deadline, McPherson said.
California counties will have $350 million in HAVA funds to spend on voting machines, he said. "It can be spent only one time and we want the voting machines compliant from the get-go."
The problem, said Alfie Charles, vice president of business development for Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Machines, is that there is no "pre-clearance for testing for HAVA compliance.
"There's a test for federal voting systems guidelines and a test for certification in California," Charles said, "but there's no test to determine HAVA compliance."
Sequoia makes a touch-screen system that meets the current HAVA standards, Charles said. But while counties can use the Sequoia Edge touch-screen machine in the November special election, California has not approved it for the June 2006 presidential primary pending a change in the software.
Sequoia expects that change to be finished by the end of the year, Charles said.
Charles said the new rule could be a problem for e-voting vendors if the federal requirements change after systems were purchased.
"If there are interpretations of the accessibility requirements or different mandates from the federal government at a later date, it would be difficult for the state to require companies to bear that cost," he said.
On the Net:
Secretary of state's Web site: http://www.ss.ca.gov
California Voter Foundation: http://www.calvoter.org
Sequoia Voting Systems: http://www.sequoiavote.com