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Tuesday, Feb 7, 2023
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Outdated Voting Systems Still Cause Concern

San Diego’s mayoral election on Nov. 8 ran smoothly, as Mayor-elect Jerry Sanders won by a decisive margin and his opponent, two-time mayoral candidate Donna Frye, quickly conceded.

Arguably, San Diego dodged a bullet and the city should be better prepared for future elections. The temporary voting systems now in place are not suited for closer elections and will continue to cause problems.

San Diego temporarily replaced its new $31 million touch screen voting systems with optical scanning systems after numerous malfunctions during both the primary election in March 2004 and subsequent mock elections. Election officials believed that this temporary fix would end voting system problems while the kinks were worked out of the new touch screen systems.

Can San Diego continue to use optical scanning during this temporary or transition period? If the city faces contentious or close elections, as it has recently, the answer is no.

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Voting system problems, real and perceived, persist in San Diego and public confidence continues to erode. Regardless of the positive results from partial recounts in 30 precincts following the mayoral primary, the temporary optical scanning systems could cause further problems for San Diego.

As a temporary replacement for its touch screen systems, San Diego is using Diebold’s Un-Accu-Vote optical scan voting system. Unfortunately, optical scanning is outdated technology developed in the 1960s, initially used for standardized tests and statewide lotteries throughout the United States.

By the 1980s, optical scanning was widely used for elections, and by the 1990s it became the most utilized voting system in the nation (29 percent of all voters). As history has shown, however, widespread usage does not necessarily mean that a system is flawless. Before the 2000 national election, the now-discredited punch card voting system was the second most utilized system in the nation.

Optical scanning systems use a pre-printed ballot card on which the voter fills in a specially designed rectangle, oval or circle. Light or infrared sensors are then used to read the darkest mark in the rectangle, oval or circle. While the 4-decades-old infrared technology is accurate if the ballot is properly filled out, it is completely deficient at reading problem markings such as cross-outs, stray marks or erasures.

These problem markings are common and not accounted for unless there is a manual recount. Election results could change, should there be a recount following a close election, which San Diego has faced in the all-too-recent past.

Frye knows all too well what happens when you have a confusing optical scan ballot design. During the November 2004 mayoral election, more than 5,500 voters listed Frye as a write-in candidate, but failed to properly fill in the bubble next to her write-in line. However, the courts subsequently voided these votes and she lost the election as a direct result.

And when Frye ran for mayor again this year, her supporters became suspicious of the voting machine results in this year’s primary. Frye won only 43 percent of primary votes, and was forced into the runoff she ultimately lost to Sanders, even though she was a strong favorite to win outright with more than 50 percent support in pre-primary polling.

The point of citing this is not to denigrate the mayor-elect or his supporters, but rather to note the suspicion of current voting mechanisms among large sectors of San Diego’s electorate , never a healthy thing for democracy.

Image data scanning, developed in the 1990s and currently used by the U.S. Census Bureau, is far more accurate than optical scanning technology. The system uses current computer technology, which is capable of distinguishing cross-outs, erasures and stray marks from “real marks,” and does not require special ballot designs that can be confusing to voters.

While San Diego had limited options following the touch screen system failures of 2004, the focus must now be to get these systems back as soon as possible and to provide extensive poll worker training in order to troubleshoot and anticipate future system problems.

Some of the problems experienced in San Diego with the touch screen systems could have been avoided if properly trained technicians were in place. Private sector experience since the 1990s has proven that touch screen voting is safe and reliable, and offers considerable advantages over traditional methods, provided proper training has occurred.

San Diego cannot afford another problematic election.


Jeffrey T. Zaino is vice president of the American Arbitration Association, an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit public service organization founded in 1926.

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