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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Glitches add up for electronic vote machines

 

By Brandon Keat

TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Thursday, April 21, 2005

 

Electronic voting machines frequently are inferior to the technologies they replace, evidenced by a string of snafus stretching from Western Pennsylvania to Miami-Dade County, elections experts say.

 

Officials in Beaver, Mercer and Greene counties are scrambling to put new voting systems in place after a test found their touch-screen systems froze, failed to detect touches or sometimes didn't count votes accurately. The Department of State decertified the machines, but will retest them Friday in Harrisburg.

 

In Florida's Miami-Dade County, glitches have prompted calls to scrap a $24.5 million touch-screen system installed after the 2000 election fiasco. Problems with UniLect Patriot voting machines, the same kind used here, have led to contested elections and millions of dollars in legal costs in North Carolina. Other e-voting woes abound.

 

"Every single type of (electronic voting machine) has had serious problems, from malfunctioning to design flaws to being too hard to use," said Ellen Theisen of VotersUnite!, a nonpartisan group that monitors voting machines and elections. "I hear a lot of the excuse 'human error,' but if these things are so complicated to use, that's a problem too."

 

The group's Web site, www.votersunite.org, documents problems with electronic voting machines across the nation: touch screens malfunctioning, machines freezing up or breaking down, and votes counted incorrectly, erased or simply uncounted.

 

E-voting nonetheless is the way of the future, said state consultant Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who has been testing voting machines for the state since 1980.

 

More than half of the 108 electronic machines Shamos has tested have failed. But the electronic machines offer better security against fraud than other systems and, when designed correctly, can offer benefits, such as alerting voters if they fail to vote in a particular race, he said.

 

Both Beaver and Greene counties went to UniLect electronic systems in 1998. Beaver County paid $1.2 million to switch from optical scan systems, while Greene County spent $400,000 to switch from hand-counted paper ballots. Mercer County spent $1 million for UniLect systems, which replaced lever machines in 2001.

 

"We went into the 21st century ahead of time with the electronic voting machines, but now, here we are," Greene County Commissioner Pam Snyder said.

 

The UniLect system failed an initial test by Shamos in 1993.

 

The glitches apparently were fixed, and the machines were certified the next year. Shamos, however, found some of the same problems -- including troubles with touch screens and straight-ticket voting -- in a test of the machines in February.

 

But Jack Gerbel, president of UniLect Corp. of Dublin, Calif., said the system works.

 

"We have never had an election where the equipment that has been programmed correctly has not counted exactly right," he said.

 

Still, specialists say, hand-counted and optically scanned ballots offer something e-voting does not: a paper trail. That's the best way to make sure all the votes get counted, said Justin Moore, a voting machine specialist at Duke University.

 

"In the perfect crime, the question is always, 'What do you do with the body?' In electronic voting, there's no body," Moore said.

 

That's one of the reasons Miami-Dade County officials are considering going back to optical scan ballots.

 

"We know that it does provide the paper records that some people in the community have made a priority," said Seth Kaplan, spokesman for the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections.

 

Brandon Keat can be reached at bkeat@tribweb.com or (724) 779-7113.

copyright 2004 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.

 

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