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Elections: Activists Get What They Want, Still Aren't Satisfied

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Voting-accuracy advocates are pleased that Allegheny County has tested the inner workings of a handful of its 4,700 electronic voting machines. But they say the county could, and should, have gone a lot further.

On Oct. 20, the county announced that a Denver, Colo., testing firm, SysTest Labs, had privately verified that 18 of its 4,700 touch-screen voting machines had the proper "firmware" -- the Commonwealth-approved software that tabulates the votes. Allegheny County is the only place in the country to run such tests on the ES&S iVotronic, which has been employed here for the last two general elections.

The process involved unsealing those machines -- which, ironically, voided their state certification and took them out of commission for the Nov. 4 election. "We couldn't test every machine, because then we wouldn't have any machines to use," says county spokesperson Kevin Evanto, who predicted 700,000 people would vote at county polls -- nearly triple last year's non-presidential contest.

"It was a question of time and also cost," he adds. "SysTest felt that 18 machines would be an adequate example ... to extrapolate to the larger population of machines."

Evanto credits VoteAllegheny, which with VotePA has been pushing for such verification, with influencing the protocol used in the examination -- a "hash" test that compares the unique fingerprint of each machine's software to the original copy.

An effort to target Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato's office with calls, spearheaded by the Pennsylvania chapter of the League of Young Voters, may have also encouraged the county to move. Terry Griffin, a League field coordinator, says the group leafleted several campuses and political events, including Michelle Obama's speech here on Oct. 17. Among the county's objections, Griffin says, was "the public hadn't shown concern" about testing. But while waiting for the speech by the Democratic candidate's wife, "People pulled out their cell phones right then and there," he reports.

While the voting-watchdog groups praise the county for its verification effort, members have mixed feelings about the result.

Marybeth Kuznik, president of VotePA, labels the 18-machine examination a "token test."

"It does not inspire confidence," she adds, "when the exact same private company that tested and passed the iVotronic voting machine and its software through federal ... testing (with the tests paid for by the machine's vendor) are now the ones telling us that everything is fine."

Collin Lynch, head of VoteAllegheny, points out that the group had recommended the county test at least 300 machines, and that the protocol development, as well as the testing, be done earlier and in public, to allow for observation and comment. "Three months ago we would have been, potentially, able to have the machines recertified and returned to service in time for the election," Lynch says.

While the county has not experienced major problems since purchasing its machines, problems are already being anticipated elsewhere. A Philadelphia group sued the state Oct. 23 to allow emergency paper ballots to be used when half of a voting precinct's machines fail. Current law only allows such a move when all machines are inoperative.

The county videotaped its testing procedure for later viewing, but that's not the same as allowing for public observation, group members say.

Local League of Women Voters chapter President Suzanne Broughton says she spent several days observing some of the county's other voting-machine testing, as one of four county residents permitted to do so.

"I'm just delighted they did it," says Broughton of the firmware check. "I think it has made Allegheny County a model for the nation." Even so, she says she hopes the public could supervise the process in the future. And, she adds, the county ought really to switch to paper ballots that can be optically scanned and kept as a record, both to verify voting machine accuracy and to correct any election disputes.

"I doubt I would feel confident that the vote is secure until our elections have a paper ballot, routine audits, public oversight and a strong chain of custody for the paper," agrees Richard King, of the local PA-Verified Voting. "Still, what the county did is true leadership for the one-third of the nation that will vote on these junk voting machines" -- his term for any brand of software-dependent voting apparatus.

"I have not yet figured out why they always keep us at arm's length," concludes VoteAllegheny member Audrey Glickman. After all, she adds, "We are all on the same side -- the side of open, transparent, well-documented and certifiable, recountable elections."

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