11/26/2007 07:40 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Voting Machines = Headaches

The following piece is published on Personal Democracy Forum as well as HuffPost"s OffTheBus.

On September 20th, I spied a small article in the San Francisco Chronicle with the headline, "S.F. election results won't be known for weeks." The Secretary of State of California, Debra Bowen, determined that ES&S Systems, makers of the AutoMARK touch screen voting machines, had sold machines to several counties, including San Francisco, that were not certified by the state. I dug a little further and found out that the the Secretary of State had already determined that the Eagle optical-scan machines bought by California in 2000 inconsistently read some pen markings. The bottom line is that after seven years of reforms, millions of dollars in new machinery, San Francisco county cannot certify this election until a hand recount of ballots is completed.

I decided to go to San Francisco to see for myself why it is so difficult for a city sitting on the edge of Silicon Valley to elect a mayor. The voting debacle in San Francisco was a many pieced jigsaw puzzle, only the pieces don't fit together neatly or logically, the whole is not the sum of its parts.

The first polling precinct I visited on election day was the back room of a recreation center in the Petrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. The building looked and smelled like a Catholic boys school from 1952, with various shades of beige minglingwith the old scent of sweat socks. On the walls were yellowed newspaper accounts of past athletic glories including an article about O.J. Simpson's induction into the Football Hall of Fame in 1985( Potrero Hill Community Center was Simpson's childhood playground). As I pushed open the door to the voting room I realized too late that the hinges of the door were very loose, and the door smashed into the wall making a thunderous crashing sound. The boom startled the four poll workers who had been heads-down asleep on their tables;it was 2:30 pm and I was the eleventh person to show up that day. In addition to one adult woman, there were three teenage boys working the polls, products of the state's effort to recruit high school teens to replace aging poll workers. When I announced myself as a writer and not a voter, their grumpy looks turned steely and suspicious. I asked a question about the voting booths carrels -- were they private enough? -- but was met by dismissive stares. I waited a while for a voter to show up, but to no avail and soon moved on to the next polling place.

Two stops later I found myself at the Sojourner Truth Child Care Center. There I was met by a friendlier crew of three high school girls, one high school boy and two adults staffing the polls. Sixteen people had voted by 3:30 pm, but no one came inwhen I was there. We had a lively conversation about how few people voted. Vanessa, the gregarious poll inspector, raised the issue of only one person running for Mayor as part of the reason that voting was so low. There were in fact over a dozen people running for mayor, but her point, that there wasn't a serious, contested race, was certainly true.

Vanessa has worked at the polls for almost a decade. It's good, fun work, she said, and next year there will be three elections to keep her busy. The teens here had the same answer that all of the teens I talked to on Election Day had for why they had volunteered to work the polls, "Good money, and no school."

Finally, at the Thurgood Marshall High School I found voters. The after-work crowd began to trickle in around 4:30. Richard, the poll inspector, had been working the polls for nearly 20 years - and he had a lot to say about it. I had read about the problems with the voting machines, that the current versions used in San Francisco County had not been certified by the state. But this wasn't the real problem, Richard said. The real problem was the ranked voting system that had been adopted three years earlier by the city and was being used for the first time in a mayoral election.

In 2004, San Francisco County adopted a ranked order voting system for its elections. Voters select a first, second and third choice for mayor to ensure that someone gets fifty plus one percent of the vote and to avoid costly run off elections. Nice idea, nicer still if there was more education of voters about the new system since all of the voters I watched seemed surprised and perplexed when given the ballots. But, that wasn't the real problem. The real problem is that ranked order voting and the Eagle optical scan machine are not a good fit; in fact, they are election oil and water.

Each voter received a ballot from one of the poorly-trained high school kids who didn't mention anything to them about how the new system worked. The ballot had three long columns, each identical. A voter is supposed to mark their first, second and third choices from left to right. Of the fifteen voters I watched fill out the ballot, two did it right, and the rest split between marking the same person three times or marking their first choice once in the first column and leaving the second two columns blank. Voters then took their ballot to the scanning machine and fed them in. If they had filled out the ballot correctly, the ballot passed soundlessly into the large container below the scanner. But at least half of the time the ballots were rejected by the scanner. This set off a loud beeping by the machine. If your pants were split or you had spinach between your front teeth, people might privately stare and even chuckle inside, but how would you feel if you had just voted for the adult video store owner for mayor of San Francisco and it set off a loud beeping of a machine and a rush of a poll worker to find out about the problem?

When the voting machines began to beep, a printout appeared from the back of the machine, like the running tabs on an old accounting machine. But, the poll workers didn't look at the printout. Poll workers are people and it is human nature for them to try to help a voter figure out the problem, which means looking at the voter's ballot, which means looking at how they voted. Voters have a total of three tries to fill out a ballot correctly, and from what I saw, poll workers looked at the ballots each time to try to stop the beeping in the first place or avert it with the second ballot. I've always suspected that my father voted for Republicans once he stepped inside the voting booth, but I've never known for sure because his vote, cast alone in the voting booth, is private. Voters in San Francisco were deprived of this fundamental right.

After years and millions of dollars spent planning, buying, and implementing new election machinery and systems with the worthiest of intentions, the results are dismal.

The voting system in San Francisco is not ailing or inconsistent or disheveled, it's flat out broken. Millions of dollars of new machinery down the drain, poorly trained poll workers and poorly educated voters, voters who come to vote and find out that they're not registered, or not at the right polling place. And, while states and counties bumble toward electoral meltdowns, the confidence of voters continues to swoon southward.

As a digital utopian, I am in fully in favor of moving to online voting as quickly as we can. In the meantime, after watching this debacle and with the presidential primaries in California just four months away, I was left thinking that a better system right now for Californians would be a paper ballot that voters check off with any pen and drop into a ballot box.