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Vote of Confidence?

Will our voting machines let us down April 22?

Are Pennsylvania's voting machines -- in the spotlight during the primary season for the first time in recent memory -- ready for their close-up? 

In recent years, advocates for election integrity have expressed wariness about "touch-screen" voting machines in Allegheny and other counties, which provide no paper trail for the ballots cast upon them. And since last November's general election, the movement to add back-up paper records to our electronic voting machines has gotten a few crucial votes of confidence.

While Allegheny County is sticking with its own touch-screen machines for the April 22 primary, Fayette, Wayne and Lackawanna counties have recently switched from paperless touch-screens to machines that optically scan paper ballots. That approach allows voters to see whether the machine says it has registered their choices. More crucially, the paper ballots would allow election officials to audit random machines for accuracy, or to compare a hand-count with a machine tally in close or disputed elections -- or in the case of machine malfunction or suspected tampering.

"In fact," notes Marybeth Kuznik, executive director of VotePA, which monitors election integrity, "the two most notorious states -- other than Pennsylvania -- are both moving in that direction." 

Florida, whose disputed presidential election in 2000 impelled the federal government to institute electronic voting nationwide, recently voted to use only optical-scan machines and to institute audits after touch-screen machines proved equally problematic. In one 2006 Florida congressional race, decided by fewer than 400 votes, machine tallies in one county showed no votes for 18,000 people who voted for other races on the same ballot.

"The high undervote rate is all the more striking because it was approximately five times higher than the undervote rate in surrounding counties," notes a January report by two nonprofit watchdog organizations, Common Cause and Verified Voting. "The cause of this extraordinarily high undervote is not known for certain, but the evidence points to machine-related failure." 

The report labels Pennsylvania a "high risk" state for similar failures.

Ohio, whose voting problems have been notorious since the feds stepped in, released a study in December claiming "critical security failures" in all three types of machines used in that state -- including the iVotronic touch screen, which is manufactured by Nebraska's Election Systems & Software and used in Allegheny County. "The tools needed to compromise an accurate vote count could be as simple as ... using a magnet and a personal digital assistant," the study said. It noted "exploitable vulnerabilities" -- enough "to compromise voting machines and election results, or to inject and spread software viruses into the central election management system."

Ken Fields, spokesperson for ES&S, says, "We disagree with some of the report's findings." He terms other findings "inaccurate" and adds that yet others have resulted in machine improvements. Overall, Fields says, the company disputes the report because "it assumes that there was no role on the part of poll workers ... to provide any security procedures. 

"There's never been a documented case" of votes changed due to "malicious activity," Fields notes.

But the Florida undervote is one reason that U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Aliquippa) is one of two local co-sponsors of a pending House bill that would pay for counties throughout the U.S. to voluntarily add paper trails and institute audits of their machines.

"I'm sure that, with 18,000 votes that were lost in Florida, if we'd had this bill, we would know who won that race," says Altmire. He is confident that the bill will pass, unlike a previous version, which offered no funds to places that, like Allegheny County, had already invested in a system without paper. 

Still, Pennsylvania remains one of the last 12 states, and the last large swing state in a national election, not to mandate the use of voter-verified paper records. 

"Changing to a paper-based optical-scan system is not that hard," notes VotePA's Kuznik -- especially since Allegheny County already prints optical-scan ballots for absentee voting, and has a central scanner to process them. 

Buying vote-counting optical scanners for every polling place would be the major financial hurdle, along with buying specially equipped ballot-marking machines to serve those with disabilities. But the alternative -- a slow, stymied or botched election -- would be costly for the whole state, Kuznik says. And while polls suggest the April 22 Democratic primary may not be that close, the general election still might be a squeaker.

"We're going to be the center of the universe as November approaches, and if something goes wrong ..." Kuznik muses. "I just hope we don't have to learn the hard way."

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