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Orange County Lawsuit Targets Vote Centers, Use of Tech

The issue being raised by the lawsuit is with the electronic poll books that verify voter eligibility and whether a voter has already voted.

Every election year, thousands of voters in Orange County flock to vote centers to carry out their civic duty, but a lawsuit is challenging whether the convenience of having multiple choices of locations that open for days ahead to cast a ballot breaks California election law.

That’s what three registered Republican voters in Orange County are alleging in a lawsuit recently filed against OC Registrar of Voters Bob Page and the five members of the OC Board of Supervisors, Secretary of State Shirley Weber and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

A 2016 law passed by the state Legislature opened up the opportunity for counties to allow voters to cast a ballot at any vote center within their county, rather than assigning people to traditional neighborhood polling places. Orange County was an early adopter in the state and made the change to vote centers in 2020.

Called the Voter’s Choice Act, the measure also allows counties to mail every registered voter a ballot, expand in-person early voting and provide secure ballot drop-off locations throughout the county, according to the secretary of state’s website.

The issue being raised by the lawsuit is with the electronic poll books that verify voter eligibility and whether a voter has already voted.

The plaintiffs, Michelle Morgan, Raul Ortiz and Stefan Bean — who are all also current or former candidates for elected office in Orange County — contend that connecting the electronic poll books at vote centers to the Internet is in violation of a state election code that says “no part of the voting system shall be connected to the Internet at any time” and that “no part of the voting system shall electronically receive or transmit election data through an exterior communication network” or “receive or transmit wireless communications or wireless data transfers.”

The lawsuit alleges that election officials violated that code because there is no way to immediately access data in the electronic poll books without using the Internet.

Filed in Orange County Superior Court in March, the lawsuit seeks to invalidate the Voter’s Choice Act and make it unenforceable.

“Every county should’ve looked at the law before enforcing [the Voter’s Choice Act],” said attorney Deborah Pauly, with the Lex Rex Institute, which filed the complaint on behalf of the plaintiffs. “What we’re looking for is a correction of the situation. There needs to be statutory compliance.”

In Orange County, the Board of Supervisors voted to switch to vote centers in 2019, reversing past resistance from supervisors who voted against adopting the system in 2017. Los Angeles County has also adopted them and hasn’t had any major problems since 2020.

Alexander Haberbush, founder and president of the Lex Rex Institute, maintains that the Voter’s Choice Act conflicts with a prior section of the state election code and “when there’s a mandatory provision and a discretionary provision, the mandatory controls.”

“All three of our plaintiffs are concerned with election security,” he said, “and they would like judicial clarification of exactly what is prohibited.”

Page said he cannot discuss ongoing litigation, but he pointed to his comments in a 2023 presentation to the Board of Supervisors about how the vote centers work and their security.

He acknowledged that the poll books are connected to the Internet so they can communicate securely between each other and make sure only one ballot is counted per person. But, he said, “in terms of what is not connected to the Internet, the printers are not connected to the Internet, the ballot marking devices are not connected to the Internet, the scanners are not connected to the Internet, both in the field and vote centers and in our office. And then our voting tally room, where the votes are tabulated from the ballots that are scanned, that is not connected to the Internet, either.”

He added that all of the equipment is re-imaged before each election to make sure the software hasn’t been modified in any way.

Important to note is that the electronic poll books are prohibited from being connected to a voting system and that the Internet connection being used must be void of public or guest access, said Gowri Ramachandran, deputy director of the elections and government program of the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute based in Washington, D.C.

“It does not pose the kind of security problem that having the tabulators hook up to each other or to the Internet would cause,” she said.

“Electronic poll books are really just the system for checking off who’s voted,” she said. “They don’t have anything to do with counting the votes.”

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