Santa Cruz County’s new accessibility enabled voting machines have everything election experts ask for — they’re touch-screen, won’t keep your data on file and aren’t connected to the internet. When I tried one out on Feb. 11, county clerk Gail Pellerin led me into a brightly lit room down the hall from her office, which had about a dozen chairs set up in rows, facing a plastic table topped with a printer and a monolithic black tablet.
The experience was not unlike ordering a Big Mac via kiosk. Pellerin powered on the tablet, tapped through various settings and motioned for me to click “accept” on a disclaimer notice confirming I was, in fact, who I said I was. Doing this sent me to the first item on the March 3 primary ballot, the presidential primary vote, followed by everything else Santa Cruz voters will be voting on this season — Measure W, Measure X, the recall election and so on.
Pellerin reassured me that anything I clicked would not be stored digitally, and in fact would never leave the room in which we were standing. At the end of the button tapping process, my phony votes were printed out on a sheet of paper, listed out in both plain text and, at the top of the page, a scannable QR code. This code, she explained, is what the county will count on election night.
“They’re like an electronic pen,” Pellerin said. “Everything comes back in the form of paper, and we scan it here and report results out that way.”
Manufactured by Denver-based e-voting company Dominion Voting Systems, these machines were designed to meet a growing nationwide market for electronic marking systems that leave a paper trail, but not a digital one. States hope these systems are harder for nefarious actors to tamper with — an increasingly serious consideration given fears that foreign powers might once again attempt to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.
Santa Cruz County is adopting the new system to replace its old accessibility enabled voting machines, which were recently decertified for use in California. These machines stored balloting information on a digital cartridge which would be physically transferred to the County Elections Department to be counted on election night. All told, there will be one new Dominion voting machine at each of the county’s voting precincts.
But Dominion’s system, and others that record ballot responses via QR code, were recently decertified for official use in Colorado, amid concerns they leave no way for voters to verify with their own eyes if what’s printed on their ballots in text matches what’s printed as a QR code.
“Voters should have the utmost confidence that their vote will count,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold in a Sept. 16, 2019 statement. “We must continually assess all election systems to identify areas that should be improved. Our adversaries are not standing still, and neither can we.”
The state instead adopted voting machines that print ballots that appear the same as pen-and-paper ones, with shaded ovals representing the voter’s selections.
These decisions, however, came just as Dominion’s tablet system was first being certified for use in California. An approval document signed by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla showed that a public hearing to consider the machines was held on Sept. 4 of last year, with the document itself signed on Oct. 18.
Of course, California elections officials don’t consider the technology defunct. Chris Miller, a spokesperson for Padilla, explained that before hitting voting precincts, the machines undergo numerous layers of testing at both the state and local levels to ensure they produce accurate results. He added that California law requires local officials to audit these results after election night, often by hand.
“As part of the post election audit, election officials must review any ballot with a barcode or QR code used for tabulation to verify that the information in the barcode or QR code matches the voter selections,” Miller said in an email.
This process is what gives county clerk Gail Pellerin confidence that Santa Cruz voters will trust the new system come election night. The county won’t certify the results of the election until every ballot with a QR code on it is hand-checked for accuracy, and when I spoke to her, she said that the county was conducting its own thorough inspection of the Dominion systems — a lengthy process where county officials must print out, scan and hand check dozens of ballot iterations per machine.
“We have a three person, independent board that comes in and verifies that when you make selections on the tablet, if you’re voting for A, B and C, it will print out A, B and C.” Pellerin said. “And when it scans, it’s A, B and C. […] Having those security measures in place gives me 100 percent confidence in what the system is doing.”
She added that if any voters are skeptical about the accuracy of the new system, they’re more than welcome to request that the county scan their ballots and read out the results to them.