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Activists say county must test more voting machines

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Two local voting-machine watchdog groups that urged Allegheny County to verify its machine software believe the county's effort last December was "ground-breaking." But they're calling for more extensive and systematic efforts to ensure an accurate vote.

The county Division of Elections and the Commonwealth's Secretary of State, which oversees elections, say such a move is impossible and unnecessary.

The April 6 report, authored by VoteAllegheny and PA Verified Voting, praises the county's verification effort, which included the examination of 40 of the county's 4,000-plus iVotronic electronic touch-screen voting machines after last November's election. The two Squirrel Hill groups label the county's effort an "improvement in election system integrity." But they add that the process, which compared each machine's main "firmware" -- the machine's computer code -- with a state-certified copy, could be improved.

Among other factors, they worry that the county tested so few machines -- less than 1 percent of the total. Testing more machines -- at least 300 --would result in a statistically significant sample.

"Despite the passage of several months, [county officials] have not provided any explanation or rationale for the sample sizes they have chosen," says report co-author David Eckhardt, a Carnegie Mellon University associate teaching professor of computer science.

What's more, opening each machine to test the software voids its state certification: The machines, once verified, can't be used on Election Day. "[R]e-certification of opened devices should be a standard service offered by the equipment vendor," the report suggests. It urges that the county spell out that requirement in future contracts with the iVotronic manufacturer, ES&S of Lincoln, Neb.

ES&S did not respond to a request for comment. Mark Wolosik, head of the county's Elections Division, says he has "no opinion" about whether checking more of the machine software is necessary. Nor is he sure how many more machines could be tested in the rush before an election.

"I don't know how much time there is to do [this]," he says.

The April 6 report contains other recommendations as well. It urges that the county monitor other machine operations not currently being tested, as well as the removable cartridges poll-workers use to start each voter's ballot. It also requests the county to publish a report on the tests it carries out, in hopes that the testing can be duplicated elsewhere. "[T]he work done here is equally urgent for all counties ... which will be deploying software-dependent voting equipment," the report concludes.

In response to the report, the Pennsylvania Department of State issued a statement. "We are confident the program already in place is working," the statement reads, although it adds that in the future it should be possible to conduct "software verification without rendering the machine unfit for service."

Ultimately, the watchdog groups want voting machines whose totals can be verified without depending on computer software, such as optical scanners using paper ballots. No matter how much the current machines are tested, they say, voters still have to depend on the inscrutable workings of memory chips.

With the old lever-driven machines, Eckhardt says, "any qualified mechanical engineer or auto mechanic could inspect them and make sure they were working correctly." But with a computer-driven system, "[A]ll relevant details of the operation of these machines are withheld from public scrutiny."

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