The twice-delayed decision about which electronic voting machines to purchase for Allegheny County may have finally taken place on Feb. 7, as City Paper went to press. Or it may not have happened at all, as advocates of voting verification hope.
Such activists are trying to get counties to purchase machines that can print paper ballots to verify voters' touch-screen choices in a contested election. Ideally, say some activists, the county would purchase machines that optically scan paper ballots, which would be stored as backup documents at each polling place. Such precinct-count optical scanner systems can even catch badly marked ballots before the votes are registered, saving them from later disqualification.
Thanks to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, all states must purchase electronic voting machines by their spring primaries or risk losing millions of federal funds that will defray the cost. The Commonwealth has approved for purchase only a limited number of machines by an even more limited number of vendors -- and won't allow touch-screen machines to print paper back-up records. Such a system would allow voter rolls to be too easily matched with votes cast, negating the secret ballot, argues Secretary of State Pedro Cortes, whose office is in charge of approving the machines. And individual voters can never know whether any one printed ballot shows what the machine is counting internally, argues the state's chief voting machine tester, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Michael Shamos.
Such opinions don't deter the army of accurate-voting advocates that has sprung up since the contested 2000 presidential election in Florida brought the issue to the forefront. In the past two weeks, they have been working overtime to legislate and sue Allegheny and other counties, the state and even the federal government into submission.
On Jan. 30, Richard King of Squirrel Hill handed County Executive Dan Onorato (a Board of Elections member) a lawsuit intended to prevent the county from purchasing any new machines, and seeking voter approval of any purchase. He leads eight plaintiffs, including State Sen. Jim Ferlo, who is also among the plaintiffs in a similar suit served on Westmoreland County Jan. 6.
Mary Ann Gould, who runs the Coalition for Voting Integrity Web site in Bucks County's Richboro, sued the state last month to try to change the criteria by which the Commonwealth certifies voting machines for use. She hopes to allow other states' rejections of particular machines to be considered by decision-makers in Pennsylvania. She also hopes to hire hackers to try to break into a system -- before someone not on the state's payroll can attempt it.
Bucks County's U.S. Congressman, Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, has already introduced a bill to allow states to have new machines in place by this November's general election, rather than the primary.
"An arbitrary date should not be placed before the security of our voting systems," says Gould. "We actually have a voting crisis in this country."
Allegheny County, leading a consortium of 20 neighboring counties, has placed Diebold's AccuVote TSX machine on top of its wish list, thanks to a relatively cheap price and Diebold's guarantee to deliver their machines by the primary.
Thanks to a less-than-perfect history with other states' elections, however, Diebold's touch-screen machine also stars in activists' nightmares about possible votes lost and software malfunctioning -- not to mention outright shenanigans with the eventual tally.
"We should not have for-profit companies with proprietary software determining the outcome of our elections," says voting activist Mary Lewin, an O'Hara Township attorney who worked with Ohio's Citizens Alliance for Secure Elections when she lived there recently. "I don't think our votes should be a commodity."
Lewin points to Diebold's history in the Buckeye State, which includes, as reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer: the very public support for President George W. Bush's re-election, including a pledge to deliver the state's electoral votes to Bush, by Diebold's Chief Executive Officer Walden O'Dell, who has since resigned; the July 2005 temporary suspension of the Franklin County board of elections director "for his handling of a $10,000 check from a representative of voting-machine company Diebold"; and continued contributions by lower-level Diebold managers to Ohio elections officials after a promise by top Diebold officials not to contribute more.
Stanford University Professor David Dill helped start the national call for a paper trail in U.S. voting booths after there were problems with Diebold machines in California, beginning in 2003 -- problems company spokesman David Bear blames on an auxiliary unit, not the touch-screen machines themselves. Bear says Diebold has placed nearly double the machines in U.S. polling places since 55,000 were used in November 2004.
But Dill, founder of VerifiedVoting.org, isn't assuaged. "If someone asks, why can you trust these machines?" he says. "I can't answer that."