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Voting: Machine Age of Voting Looms, But Questions Still Abound

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Overheard at the Nov. 17 public demonstration of electronic voting machines, which Allegheny County will put in place for the next election in May 2006:

 

"I want to know, do I get something when I walk out?"

 

Everyone from poll workers to county Election Commission head John DeFazio to John and Mary Q. Voting-Public in that crowded Westin Convention Center room had one paramount question: Do these machines print out a piece of paper that proves they registered my vote?

 

Yes, assured the salesman among the four vendors pitching their wares to the county. But none explained that the state has so far disallowed the use of so-called Voter-Verified Paper Records.

 

"A lot of the polling places are, like, in a garage or in somebody's living room. Will the county have to find new polling places?"

 

To accommodate these machines? No. Only one machine vendor plugging for county purchase on Nov. 17 offers a full-screen machine, in which every race is visible on a large electronic interface. Most allow the voter to page through each race one at a time.

 

But to accommodate voters with disabilities? Yes. A major reason Allegheny County will be replacing its lever machines is that the Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandates access for all who wish to vote. Approximately a quarter of the county's 1,300 polling places aren't accessible to those in wheelchairs, for instance.

 

The other major reason for the HAVA rules? Bush v. Gore, decided by the Supreme Court after the 2000 presidential election.

 

"That's probably the biggest change for your current voter -- they're used to going into a kind of tomb and being encased."

 

While the problems in Florida's 2000 election centered around a poorly designed ballot and chads famously hanging -- or not -- from punch cards, there's no telling what problems await the electronic electorate of 2006 and beyond. The county has until Dec. 31 to make up its mind about what machines to purchase, and the state is still testing machines. It has approved only two models so far. Local voting activist Mary Beth Kuznik noted that the hold-up has been reluctance on the part of vendors to release their operating codes to state scrutiny.

 

Still, Kuznik wasn't sanguine about the looming deadline. "HAVA is well intentioned but it's like a train heading for a brick wall," she said. "Things are coming and we're not ready."

 

"You're getting money from the federal government. The price is really moot."

 

Not exactly. While the feds will pitch in about $12 million, the machines will cost the county $16 million for initial purchase.

 

Favorite remarks overheard during the county's voting machine testing, from people taking the practice elections way too seriously:

 

"Oh my God -- he's been dead for eight years."

 

And a minute later:

 

"No, you don't want to vote for [Ron] Suber, he's in prison."

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