The prospect that Pennsylvania may re-certify the electronic voting machines recently de-certified for Beaver, Mercer and Greene counties has paper-ballot advocates from all over the country in arms - not to mention the local activists who cheered the state's original move.
High undervotes in those three counties on Nov. 2 - election results in which an unusual number of people voted for every office but president - prompted re-testing of their voting machines in Harrisburg this winter. These counties used "Patriot" machines made by UniLect of Dublin, Cal. After the Commonwealth's re-examination of the Patriot, it was taken off the state's list of approved voting apparatus on April 8.
But in a move surprising to activists pushing for a return to paper ballots (or at least official paper receipts on electronic voting machines), the state agreed to retest the Patriot on April 22.
"I don't know how bad Pennsylvania is infested with paperless voting, but they sure don't want to end up like this," says Joyce McCloy in Carteret County, N.C., who formed the North Carolina Coalition for Verified Voting (www.ncvoter.net) after UniLect machines stopped counting her county's presidential votes in the 2004 election, losing 4,400 choices. "We almost had to have a new statewide election," she says. A state commissioner for agriculture candidate, behind by 2,300 votes on Nov. 2, conceded only in February. She points to a list of voting machine "mess ups" collected at www.VotersUnite.Org.
"I consider it an absolute travesty and symbol of complacency that North Carolina has not piled up all of its UniLect machines into one great big bonfire!" McCloy adds. "If you allow these ... voting machines to be used even though you have had them re-examined ..." she concluded, speaking prior to the April 22 re-test, "then that hurts my state."
Whether the Patriot will be deemed unsuitable for use in Pennsylvania - again - has yet to be determined. Mark McPherson of Mercer County Citizens for Better Government watched the April 22 re-test and can't predict how the state will rule. Noting that UniLect president Jack Gerbel had brought machines with changed hardware and software, McPherson still saw a rather touchy touch-screen that didn't always respond to a finger. Yet, in the end, with a faux primary and general election run on the machine, "both of [the tallies] worked fine. We don't know what to think."
UniLect's Gerbel agrees. "Who knows what's going to happen?" he says. "I thought it was going to pass the last time." Does he find the accurate test results heartening? "No," he responds, since "our system always counts correctly. When it is coded in the proper way and used in the proper way, [the Patriot] is always accurate." And the machines that stopped counting votes in Carteret County, N.C.? He chalks it up to "a misunderstanding as to how many ballots a [machine's] control unit can hold." Someone ("We really don't know who was at fault - we're not pointing fingers," Gerbel says) had a machine setting incorrect.
"Nothing will change if they are given a second chance," opines Lisa Burks of the National Coalition for Verified Voting in Conway, Ark., outside Little Rock. What has changed, even among Mercer County voting officials who attended the re-test, observes McPherson, is the feeling that no matter the accuracy of UniLect's machines, voters may no longer be able to trust them.