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May. 24, 2006


Voting machines a touchy topic

By Anne Danahy


BELLEFONTE -- This year's primary elections are over, but the debate about which voting machines Centre County should buy shows no signs of fading.


Several voters told the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that voting machines that produce a verifiable paper trail are crucial to elections. Because of that, they said, the touch-screen system that was one of two systems the county leased for the primaries should be dropped. They recommended the county stick with the optical-scan system that uses paper ballots.


The touch-screen system appeared to be the more popular system with voters last week.


According to the Office of Elections, 9,903 voters, or 54 percent of those who cast ballots, used the touch-screen system. The other 8,302 voters, or about 45 percent, filled out paper ballots that were read by the optical scanner.


Joyce McKinley, director of elections, said poll workers reported that even more people might have used the touch screens if there had not been waiting lines, according to elections workers.


The county had one touch-screen system in each polling station, while multiple booths were available for people who filled in paper ballots.


But poll worker Mary Vollero said some poll workers encouraged voters to try the touch-screens, so those numbers shouldn't be relied on.


Rob Fisher, a Bellefonte resident, said discrepancies in the 2000 presidential election in Ohio and Florida, where the vote counts were widely contested, led voters to feel disenfranchised and many to distrust a voting process that doesn't have verifiable records.


"I am extremely distressed we are still considering using a machine that cannot do that," Fisher said. "Voting is just too darn important for our country, and I don't think it can be left up to chance."


Vollero said the touch-screen system in her Bellefonte precinct had many problems, including not being able to do a final count at the end of the day.


She said while poll workers praised the touch-screen system and compared it to ordering a sandwich at convenience stores, "at least at Sheetz you get a paper receipt."


McKinley said later that no results were lost and that all the information was extracted from the electronic system.


The county leased the two systems from Election Systems & Software to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act. The county has not decided which one it wants to buy.


Board of Commissioners Chairman Chris Exarchos said the county will look at what happened in other counties as well.


"I guess the message I'm getting is we need a marriage of both technologies," Exarchos said.


He said either system would cost about the same. The optical scan can come with an attachment to make is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.


The technology is available for touch-screen systems to produce paper trails, but the state won't allow that, he said.


An Election Systems & Software spokeswoman said the touch-screen systems can come with an audit log that scrolls on paper under a screen so all voters can see their votes recorded. She said the system, which was federally certified, stores the information without using voters' names or numbers.


But a Pennsylvania Department of State spokeswoman said a paper trail would violate voters' privacy and secrecy rights.


Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.


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