The first electronic vote in Allegheny County will also be the first Democrat-on-Democrat demonstration over potential voting problems.
While county Democratic Committee members vote on Sun., Feb. 27, to endorse Dems for the May primary election, local activists from MoveOn.org will be leafleting members about potential problems with computer-based voting.
Such private elections have nothing to do with when, or even whether, the county moves to computer voting. But County Controller Tom Flaherty, as his last act before he left the committee chair this month to run for Court of Common Pleas judge, set up the electronic voting through Philadelphia-based Unisys.
"Unisys wants to put a show on and show everybody how foolproof and efficient their touch-screen voting is," Flaherty says. "They are very interested in providing their service to Allegheny County."
Besides, says Mark Salvas, director of operations for the local Democratic Party, voting-law reforms after the 2000 general election debacle will force us to move to electronic voting machines by 2006.
Not so fast, says MoveOn member Janice Williams of the North Side: "They're trying to plant some seeds," she says. "We're trying to make sure everyone understands the hazards associated with touch-screen voting."
Marybeth Kuznik, a 15-year veteran poll worker in Penn Township, Westmoreland County (and also a MoveOn member), believes the current voting process is no longer tenable, despite the fact that the mechanical lever machines used in Western Pennsylvania are "hard to hack." After last November's general election, she helped train volunteers to oversee the recount in Ohio.
"It was more like a reprint than a recount," she says.
Kuznik and her fellow activists are forming a voters' lobbying group, Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections, to ask for more than a paper trail on electronic balloting. Whereas most national voters' groups are agitating for a voter-verified paper audit -- essentially a receipt each voter gets to check before allowing his vote to count -- Kuznik wants this receipt to matter just as much as the electronic vote. In fact, paper needs to take legal precedence over machine, she says, "because the paper is more likely to be right, especially if the voter has had a chance to verify it."
She is calling for automatic comparisons of paper to electronic votes in at least 10 percent of randomly selected voting precincts for each election, should electronic voting be instituted. "Then I'd feel a little bit more confident," she says.
Kuznik insists that election reforms will not force anyone to move to electronic voting. But Mark Wolosik, head of the county Board of Elections, believes electronic voting is inevitable here. He says the Commonwealth, which must approve any equipment before it is purchased, is beginning to test electronic voting machines.
Unisys, which did not return City Paper's calls by press time, is apparently using machines made by its parent company, Accupoll, of suburban Los Angeles. While Accupoll spokesman Geoff Mordock was unable officially to confirm their participation, he knew the date of the county Democratic Committee vote without being told.
Accupoll machines, Mordock says, feature a voter-verified printout that drops into a ballot box after voters confirm their choices. According to the company's Web site (www.accupoll.com), the machines even prevent undervotes by warning voters of missed contests. "If [a] voter finds errors" on the printed receipt, notes the Web site, "a polling place official may spoil the ballot and the voter may recast a new ballot."
Tom Flaherty says he isn't concerned about a spoiled election. He expects the committee members -- who number 2,600 officially, but with some slots unfilled -- to have an 80 percent turnout. "If there is a close race, I'm sure the redress would be there," he says of the February contest. "I'm not worried. I'll tell you why: I think Unisys has the most to worry about.