Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Minor glitch found in Allegheny County voting machines

Expert tricks county's new electronic system but calls the problem a minor one


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

By Tracie Mauriello, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau


HARRISBURG -- After four hours of testing yesterday, a glitch was found in the voting system Allegheny County is planning to use in the May 16 primary.


"So far, it's not fatal," said Michael Shamos, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who will recommend whether the system should be certified in Pennsylvania.


"You do have some diagnosing to do," he told representatives of Sequoia Voting Systems, the Oakland, Calif.-based manufacturer of the AVC Advantage voting machines tested yesterday.


A week ago elections were disrupted in Chicago and the rest of Cook County because of a rash of problems with two of Sequoia's other voting systems. Problems occurred there when poll workers tried to transfer results from the machines onto tabulators that compile vote totals, said Joan Krawitz, executive director of Vote Trust USA and a resident of Cook County.


The problem Dr. Shamos found yesterday sounds similar, she said.


As part of his testing, which continues today, Dr. Shamos cast 12 votes in a mock primary. The machine reported the votes correctly but there was a problem when its data cartridge was inserted into a central computer. Audit trails, which are supposed to carry records of individual ballots, were incorrect.


"I've got the correct vote totals, but I've got a very strange, apparently corrupted audit trail," Dr. Shamos said. "The totals are all correct but the audit trail is completely haywire."


Paul Terwilliger, Sequoia's director of product development, could not immediately fix the problem or say what caused it.


He and colleague Ken Lees were to work on the problem overnight and report back to Dr. Shamos this morning during the second and final day of testing aimed at uncovering problems with vote tallies, inaccuracies in audit trails and opportunities for election tampering.


Problems are common, said Dr. Shamos, who has been testing machines for more than 25 years.


"There's hardly any voting machine I've ever looked at that I can't cause to have some problems in a solid half-hour or hour of probing. Am I confident I can find every bug? No, but I can find a lot of them," he said.


Most problems can be easily fixed or aren't significant enough to prevent certification, he said.


"What everybody is worried about is security and the possibilities of penetrating the system," he said. "What about reliability? What kinds of backup records does the machine maintain in case there's a power failure?"


The tools of his trade are a digital camera, a video camera, a laptop computer and old-fashioned paper and pen to record every question, every response, every button pushed and every beep of the machine.


He presses voting buttons softly, he pounds them harshly, he deftly types names of write-in candidates, and he runs his fingers across rows of them as if a pianist finishing with an expressive glissando. All the while he checks to see whether lights on the machine respond and, later, whether his votes are recorded accurately.


"When you do this all day you start to become faster. The problem is, voters don't have all day," Dr. Shamos said, furiously clicking buttons.


Part of his job is to ensure that machines are easy to use and that instructions are clear to voters, including those who can't see. As part of yesterday's testing, Dr. Shamos listened to instructions on headphones and voted using a keypad with large buttons in geometric shapes.


It could be two or three weeks before Dr. Shamos is ready to make a recommendation to Secretary of State Pedro Cortes, who then will decide whether to certify the machines. If Mr. Cortes doesn't, Allegheny County could lose a $12 million federal grant and would have to scramble for a new system by the May 16 primary.


Montgomery County, which has been using the machines since 1996, has a lot at stake, too.


Joe Passarella, the county's director of voter services there, said the machines are reliable and he expects Dr. Shamos will approve them.


The testing is required as part of the Help America Vote Act, which provides grants to municipalities that replace old voting machines with new ones that meet federal standards.


The act was passed in response to Florida's hanging-chad debacle during the 2000 presidential election.


(Tracie Mauriello can be reached at or 717-787-2141. )


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