In the eyes of voting-integrity activists, San Diego County hit the trifecta this spring.
It all started in April with the hiring of Michael Vu as San Diego County's new assistant registrar of voters. Vu's most recent job was head of elections for Ohio's Cuyahoga County, where, this past January, two of his deputies were found guilty of tampering with a vote recount in the 2004 presidential election; both received jail time. A year ago, an audit by an independent elections review board described Vu's handling of Cuyahoga County's May 2006 primary as an "across-the-board failure." A follow-up audit of the November 2006 general election found far fewer problems, but both Vu and assistant registrar Gwen Dillingham resigned in February.
Vu's new boss is Deborah Seiler, hired by the county in May to replace Registrar Mikel Haas, who was promoted to the department that oversees the registrar's office. Haas was criticized for allowing poll workers to take electronic-voting machines home with them.
It was Seiler who, as the West Coast sales rep for Diebold Election Systems, sold the county 10,200 touch-screen voting machines for $31 million that had yet to be certified for use by the state. Diebold's also come under fire for the ease with which computer programmers have been able to hack into its machines.
The Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002 under the auspices of making voting easier for the elderly and disabled, required at least one electronic-voting machine at each polling place by 2006, leading to what journalist Andrew Gumbel (who contributes regularly to CityBeat's sister paper in L.A.) describes in his book Steal This Vote as "a largely unregulated business free-for-all in which the major vendors... ingratiated themselves with local and state elections officials in every way they could think of." In his book, Gumbel details the "revolving door" of elections officials who went to work for these vendors.
Rounding out the registrar trio is Mischelle Townsend, who's serving as interim registrar until Seiler starts on June 4. Townsend was Riverside County's registrar of voters until three years ago, when she announced her retirement amid, among other things, controversy about a trip she took to Florida, paid for by Sequoia Voting Systems, where she appeared in a promotional video for the company. Before she retired, Townsend sued former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley after he cracked down on electronic voting, mandating that all e-voting machines produce a voter-verifiable paper trail, a costly addition and something Townsend didn't think was necessary.
Townsend's time in San Diego hasn't received much attention, likely since no elections have happened under her watch. It was Seiler's appointment that sent an angry crowd to a May 22 Board of Supervisors meeting to protest administrative chief Walt Ekard's decision to bring in Seiler and Vu to run the county's elections. "Is San Diego the next Ohio?" one protestor wanted to know.
Samuel Popkin, a UC San Diego professor of political science who's studied voter behavior and who served on the National Research Commission on Elections and Voting-a group of scholars charged with examining issues such as voter trust, access and election administration-found fault with the way Ekard and the Board of Supervisors (Ekard's bosses) have handled public concern about the hirings, especially Vu's.
"I have no idea whether Vu is a good man or a bad man," Popkin said, "but I am stunned that the board presented no evidence of an investigation of the situation [in Ohio].
"If two of the top people in a corporation are convicted of felonies involving the corporation, before you hire the CEO, you would expect people to explain to you either how this happened on his watch or whether he was part of it," Popkin said. "These days, voting is a very touchy subject because of Florida, really, and the idea that you would work in a less-than-transparent manner, it's just hard to understand."
Shortly after Vu's hiring, Michael Workman, spokesperson for the county, released a statement to the media, saying, "There is no evidence whatsoever from Ohio or anywhere else to suggest Michael Vu has acted in anything other than an honorable and professional fashion." In the one-paragraph statement, Workman referenced media reports that said Vu's two deputies were offered plea deals in exchange for providing evidence that Vu was involved; neither could offer any information.
When CityBeat tried to contact Ekard to find out how deeply the hiring committee looked into problems with elections in Cuyahoga County, a reporter was directed back to Workman, who said in an e-mail that Ekard's statement at the May 22 meeting would be the final word on the matter: "I understand there are those of you who disagree with my hires," Ekard said. "I have heard you. I have listened to you. I disagree with you, and that's it."
Workman said that the majority of San Diego County voters have no problems with the election system here.
"A handful of very vocal activists are raising the same issues over and over," he said. "We care about running successful elections in 2008, not the perception of a handful of outspoken critics." Plus, Workman added, no one with any experience running elections is free from activists' criticism these days.
Barbara Cummings, who attended the board meeting last week, said the 2006 election of Debra Bowen as California secretary of state is proof of voters' dissatisfaction with how elections are run. Bowen's currently conducting a full review of the state's electronic-voting machines to make sure they're secure and reliable prior to the February 2008 presidential primary. Some registrars are afraid that she could decertify the machines entirely.
Of Vu and Seiler's hiring, Cummings said, "It would be difficult to select two more controversial figures."
Kim Alexander, who heads the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that follows electronic-voting issues, said that although Seiler is controversial, "she's also one of the most experienced people in California when it comes to election administration."
Prior to working for Diebold, Seiler was chief of elections under former Secretary of State March Fong Eu. When Eu left office, Seiler went to work for Sequoia Systems before being hired by Diebold as head of West Coast sales. In 2004, Solano County hired Seiler as its elections manager, second in command under the registrar. Like San Diego County, in 2003, Seiler sold Diebold machines to Solano County that had yet to be federally tested or state certified.
Other counties purchased their electronic-voting machines from other vendors, like Sequoia Systems, which haven't been without problems, either, though Diebold's name is perhaps the most recognized.
Secretary of State Shelley ultimately banned the Diebold machines prior to the November 2004 presidential election but not before San Diego County used them in the March 2004 primary. In that election, poll workers at some locations had trouble with the device that activates the cards voters must insert into e-voting machines to call up a ballot. This glitch resulted in just over one-third of polling places opening late.
"You cannot discount the impact of Diebold in all of this," Alexander said. "San Diego selected a vendor that has a troubling history and that has bolstered the critics' concerns and their fears."