Thursday, March 30, 2006
By Tracie Mauriello, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- A state voting-machine examiner yesterday halted testing of the machine Allegheny County intends to use in the May primary, saying it was pointless to continue until a critical software problem is resolved.
"It's not useful to continue because [the software] clearly is not stable," said Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon University professor.
Sequoia Voting Systems, the Oakland, Calif.-based manufacturer of AVC Advantage voting machines, will have a chance to fix the software and have it retested in a week or two. Otherwise, it's unlikely the machines will be certified for use in Pennsylvania.
If they aren't, Allegheny County must scramble for new ones before the May 16 primary and might lose a $12 million federal grant for the replacement of its lever-style machines.
Secretary of State Pedro A. Cortes will discuss the issue today in a conference call with Allegheny County Manager Jim Flynn.
"We're going to see what he has to say," Mr. Flynn said. "No matter what, we're going to have a primary here on May 16."
The problem also could affect Montgomery County, which has been using the Advantage machines since 1996 and is in line for a grant to make them accessible to the blind.
Dr. Shamos encountered yesterday's problem during a test for vote tampering. In an instant, he said, he was able to transform a handful of votes into thousands.
Developers quickly fixed the problem by replacing a file in the tabulation software, but that didn't alleviate Dr. Shamos' concerns. A malicious hacker could easily make the same switch, allowing votes to be changed, he said.
"What control is there over the software package if different files can be swapped in and out?" he asked.
Also yesterday, Dr. Shamos uncovered a series of unusual error messages and a fluke that causes the program to shut down when the "print" button is used.
A day earlier, he detected a problem transferring data between voting machines and the tabulation software. That problem has since been fixed.
Larry Tonelli, Sequoia's state manager for Pennsylvania and New York, said he was confident the latest problem can be resolved, too.
"We know the hardware is fine. It's been out there for eight or nine years so we're moving ahead with training and shipping machines [to Allegheny County]. The software doesn't need to work until just before the election so we've got time. It's no big deal," he said.
Sequoia has been under scrutiny because of tabulation problems last week in Chicago and surrounding Cook County. Those problems involved two different kinds of voting machines and may have been caused by poll workers rather than the equipment, Sequoia officials said.
"The problems are not necessarily inherent in the equipment itself, but in the initial intersection of the new technology and the people who use it," said Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Shafer.
She said -- and Dr. Shamos agreed -- that the Chicago-area problems aren't relevant to the Pennsylvania certification process.
The process involves casting dozens of mock ballots, verifying vote totals, reading thousands of lines of computer code and even checking the brightness of illuminated indicators on voting machines.
One goal is to ensure that disabled voters can easily participate in elections.
Department of State employee Jim Criss, who is visually impaired, helped test the equipment. Instructions and candidate names were given verbally and Mr. Criss voted using a keypad with four large buttons, one shaped like a triangle, one like a circle and two like triangles with points in opposite directions.
The process was simple and the instructions were straightforward, Mr. Criss reported after casting a mock ballot while 11 observers huddled around him.
The onlookers included state employees, Sequoia representatives and three members of voters' rights groups that oppose the use of Advantage machines because they don't provide paper records that can be verified by voters before they leave the polls.
"We're not confident that these machines have a clear track record and today doesn't make us feel any better," said Stephen Strahs, founder of the Election Reform Network based in Montgomery County. "We've been told, 'Don't worry. It will all be taken care of.' Well, it's almost April and there are still questions."
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.
(Staff writer Jerome L. Sherman contributed. Tracie Mauriello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141. )
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