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Voting:County Opts Out of Optical Scanner Option

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Voting activists hoping the county would buy the only kind of state-approved machines that currently allow paper voting records -- optical scan machines -- were disappointed Feb. 27. County Executive Dan Onorato and County Councilor John DeFazio, both members of the Board of Elections, voted to purchase a different kind of machine: the AVC Advantage made by Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, Calif. The current version of the machine is not yet state-certified, although earlier models have been used in Pennsylvania since 1994.

 

The third board member, County Councilor Dave Fawcett, was the lone dissenter.

 

The Advantage, a direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machine, is unusual among voting machines the county considered because it offers the entire ballot on a large screen. Onorato has said he picked the Advantage because seeing the entire ballot at once echoes the lever machines the county is replacing.

 

Optical-scan voting machines, which read ballots resembling standardized school tests and retain those paper ballots for possible recounts and challenges, are cheaper to buy, cheaper to maintain, and cheap insurance against voter fraud and machine malfunction, activists told the board.

 

"We debated it. It's not an option," said Onorato. "I don't buy that that's a foolproof system."

 

State law currently disallows any voter-verifiable paper record, such as a printout of each voter's choices, from touch-screen or push-button machines. Sequoia Vice President Howard Kramer, on hand for the meeting, assured the board that his company is developing printer technology for the Advantage. But board members weren't clear what the county would do if the state allowed such a printer without certifying the one made by Sequoia.

 

Voting activist Mary Beth Kuznik of Penn Township cites a November paper by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which studied the country's use of "full-face ballot" machines, such as the Advantage. "Voting machines with 'full-face ballot' designs," it concludes, "cause voters to commit errors in voting that lead to invalid votes far more often than other types of ballots."

 

Other voting activists point to a widely reported February study of the 2004 vote in Palm Beach, Fla., by watchdog group BlackBoxVoting.org. The group found "possible tampering and tens of thousands of malfunctions and errors," the Associated Press says. "Also, the hard drives crashed on some of the machines made by Oakland, Calif.-based Sequoia Voting Systems, some machines apparently had to be rebooted over and over, and 1,475 re-calibrations were performed on Election Day on more than 4,300 units, Harris said."

 

Sequoia and Palm Beach election officials say such findings are untrue, or can be explained.

 

Onorato said the county has added a number of safeguards to the Sequoia deal, from examining the machine's source code before and after an election to an escape clause, should the machine not receive state certification. In that case, another Sequoia model, already certified by the state, would be used in the May primary.

 

Mary Mervis of Squirrel Hill was unhappy that her fellow advocates had little effect on the county's machine choice in the end. "They didn't do their homework," she said of the board's machine choice. "It's the security of the vote that matters."

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