County election officials have been among the staunchest advocates of electronic voting (search), insisting that computers are as reliable as paper ballots.

But a dispute over a razor-thin election here suggests that important electronic data might not exist, making accurate recounts impossible in many states.

Linda Soubirous (search), a candidate for the Riverside County board of supervisors, lost a chance to stage a runoff by fewer than 50 votes. When Soubirous asked to look at the computer disks and other electronic records kept during the election, county officials refused.

Critics of electronic voting say that what happened during the March primary in the sprawling county east of Los Angeles should be a wake-up call for the 50 million Americans eligible to vote electronically in November.

Undocumented software glitches, hackers, mechanical errors or deleted ballots in only a few counties could have huge implications in a presidential election likely to be a cliffhanger. More than 100,000 paperless terminals have been installed across the nation, particularly in California, Maryland, Georgia and the battleground states of Florida, New Mexico and Nevada.

"This isn't about Riverside — it's about our nation," said Soubirous, 42, who sued Riverside County and its registrar of voters, Mischelle Townsend, an outspoken booster of electronic voting systems.

For years, Townsend touted the machines as cost-effective, foolproof and as safe as paper ballots — but she resigned unexpectedly in July, saying she needed more time with her family.

Soubirous' case is prompting demands for more transparency into election software. Like other manufacturers, Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. (search), which sold $14 million in equipment to Riverside in 1999, uses proprietary software and operates with little federal oversight.

The case, scheduled to go before a judge in Indio, Calif., Sept. 8, comes less than two months after Florida elections officials revealed that audit logs from the contested 2002 gubernatorial primary were lost in computer crashes. Officials in Miami-Dade County said later that backup copies of the data were simply misplaced, but the mishap stoked suspicion coast to coast.

"Right now, there's basically no way to know how accurate an election was, and that's not good enough for a public office," said Jeremiah Akin, 29, a Riverside computer programmer. "We should all be very skeptical."

Soubirous' case hinges on vote tallies that began arriving in stacks of absentee ballots and computer memory cartridges in Riverside's central counting office the evening of March 2. Traditionally, the registrar publishes results on printouts and online, continuously updating them as new data arrive.

In the first printout, at 8:13 p.m., three-term incumbent Bob Buster had 47 percent of the vote — shy of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Updates from the Sequoia AVC Edge touchscreens then stalled for more than an hour. During that time, Soubirous supporter Art Cassel spotted two Sequoia employees typing on a county computer.

When updates resumed about 9:15 p.m., Buster's lead had widened to 50.2 percent of the vote. After 49,196 votes were logged, Buster finished by 49 votes above 50 percent, narrowly avoiding a runoff.

Sequoia spokesman Alfie Charles said the Sequoia employees were given identification badges and access to the computers on Election Day simply to ensure that the vote tabulation proceeded smoothly. The original vote count was accurate, he said.

"As a technical matter, the election went very well," he said.

Soubirous, a registered nurse, paid more than $1,600 for a recount — but says she didn't get her money's worth. A re-examination of paper absentee ballots found 276 more votes, narrowing the margin for avoiding a runoff to 36 votes. But most of the voting took place electronically, and Townsend reproduced only the vote total delivered by each machine.

E-voting critics consider such numbers meaningless because they don't show whether software glitches or hacks resulted in misrecorded votes. They say a voter-verifiable paper ballot, missing from the vast majority of machines being deployed across the country, is a better way to prove voters' intentions.

Soubirous demanded to see audit logs, computer diskettes, internal memory cards, surveillance tapes from polling stations and other data Townsend touted as "checks and balances" that ensured the accuracy of paperless systems.

Attorneys representing Townsend responded that most of the items requested — including some electronic data from the voting machines and tabulation software — "do not exist" or "do not constitute 'relevant materials'" according to California election law. The registrar handed over only paper provisional ballots and some absentee ballots and envelopes.

Townsend, a 34-year county employee who said she retired to take care of her 93-year-old father as he recuperates from surgery, would not answer questions about the case.

As the new registrar, Barbara Dunmore assumes Townsend's place in the lawsuit and said the county probably wouldn't provide Soubirous with additional data.

"I'm not saying we don't want to open the books, but I need to learn why that information was preserved in the past before I make a recommendation about how we move forward," Dunmore said.

The March election wasn't the first to raise concerns about vote fraud among county residents.

In November 2000, Riverside became California's first county to install touchscreens in every precinct. A tax hike — rejected twice when voters were using optical scan equipment — unexpectedly passed.

An accountant in Riverside, Susan Marie Weber, became suspicious and sued Townsend and former Secretary of State Bill Jones, blasting Sequoia's closed system as "anathema to the one-person, one-vote basis of our representative government."

"We get more paperwork with a carryout order at McDonald's than when we go to the polls," said Weber, whose case was eventually dismissed.

The candidate who defeated Soubirous offered a harsher explanation for the outcry.

"This is sour grapes," Buster said. "My opponent is a publicity seeker who wants to stay in the news now so she can continue to run for elections."

Soubirous hopes her case gets more politicians interested in e-voting.

"If anyone recognized what happened to me in Riverside, they'd be appalled, whether they are Democrat or Republican," said Soubirous, a conservative Republican. "This is the foundation of our democracy here, not partisan politics."