UniLect Unelected as Computer Voting Method, Thanks to Local Voter | Pittsburgh City Paper

UniLect Unelected as Computer Voting Method, Thanks to Local Voter

If Pennsylvania officials had listened to Sheila Green, the state would have fixed its electronic voting problem in Beaver and other local counties back in October.


 "When I first moved to Beaver, I was pretty much appalled to walk into my polling place and see a touch screen, and it's not because I'm a Luddite," says Green, of Freedom, Pa., who teaches computer science at Community College of Allegheny County. She worried that "nail polish, rubber cement, snot -- whatever you have" can be put on the screen to create a permanent touch in one spot and an unchangeable vote for one candidate. And then there are possible software and hardware malfunctions, not to mention more sophisticated tampering.


Beaver began using the Patriot model of direct recording electronic voting machine, made by the UniLect Corporation of Dublin, Calif., beginning in 1998; it was also used by Mercer and Greene counties. One potential problem, Green says, was that this machine doesn't offer any paper record of individuals' votes. Such a record would allow each voter to verify that the machine recorded his or her choices properly. It would also allow for a manual recount.


Using a state law that permits any 10 voters to petition the Commonwealth to review local voting methods, Green sent such a request to the state more than a month before last fall's presidential election. But Election Day arrived before the state responded.


On Nov. 2, the three counties using UniLect's Patriot machine saw an unprecedented number of "undervotes" -- ballots that contained votes in some races but not in others. An average election may see a 1 percent undervote: In Mercer, meanwhile, 28 of its 100 county precincts had undervotes of at least 4 percent; one precinct had 9.3 percent and another almost 8 percent. (The county's elections chief resigned in December after the discovery of coding errors in 13 other precincts' machines.)


 "The fallout from this has been enormous -- the loss of voter confidence" significant as the May 17 primary approaches, says Kathy McPherson, one of the organizers of Mercer County Citizens for Better Government, formed in response to the undervote problem. Her group petitioned in December to have UniLect examined by the state, but it was Sheila Green's effort that finally got the state to call in the company for an official re-examination in February. Her husband Mark, also active in the group, attended the demonstration, observing, in his written account, that the machine produced errors or had failures "repeatedly."


In an April 8 report, the state de-certified UniLect's machine for use anywhere in the Commonwealth.


 "We don't agree with the findings of the report," says UniLect spokesperson Catherine Burkhart, calling them "out of context and inaccurate. ... We do intend to get re-certified shortly."


There are still "a long line of manufacturers" of voting equipment waiting for the state's OK, says Kathy McPherson. Many states believe -- erroneously, she asserts -- that the federal Help America Vote Act, put in place after the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election, requires counties to institute electronic voting to aid voters with disabilities. But without better performing machines that offer a voter-verified paper ballot, McPherson says, "you're going to see more examinations and more de-certifications and it's going to be expensive for the state. What happened in our county is not going to be an isolated incident."


Meanwhile, Sheila Green in Beaver will be watching how the three counties formerly using UniLect handle future elections. "If it came right down to it, I would say they should go back to paper ballots," she says. Because she forced a re-examination of UniLect machines, in next month's primary she will get her wish.