New voting machines a crazy idea


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

By Sally Kalson


Say the toilet in your home has worked fine for 40 years with a few tweaks here and there. But now the U.S. Congress, mindful of serious plumbing problems in other parts of the country, passes the Help America Flush Act, requiring everyone to install modern toilets.


The feds set a deadline of May 2006. Meet it and they'll help foot the bill. Don't meet it and they just might fine you.


Shockingly enough, problems ensue. The state says you must choose toilets from its approved list, but that list only has a few models, none of which you'd want in your house. Meanwhile, a lot of the modernized toilets turn out to be backing up and springing leaks all over the place.


What do you do? Face penalties by holding out for a model that actually works the way it should? Or follow orders and pick from the approved choices, even though they may flood you out of house and home?


This is the dilemma Allegheny County faces on the issue of new voting machines, which are at least as critical to our democratic system as indoor plumbing. And while I hate to compare voting apparatus with toilets, I do so because the wrong equipment risks flushing our ballots straight into the sewer.


The most maddening factor here is the false dichotomy of choose-or-lose. There are good reasons to modernize the county's voting equipment (like access for the disabled) but only one bad reason to be stampeded into a costly mistake. And that, says Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist David Eckhardt, is "the crazy top-down legal mandates" the county is facing from above.


The county board of elections is exercising all due diligence in pursuit of reliable machines that offer voter verification and software open to public inspection. But Pennsylvania's Department of State hasn't certified a single touch-screen machine with a paper trail -- one almost fears to ask what they've been doing for the past two years.


Meanwhile, the feds are breathing down the board's neck to meet the well-intended May deadline of the Help America Vote Act -- even though our current machines work just fine and could certainly be deployed for the May primary.


Complicating matters further is a deep discount being offered to the cash-strapped county by Diebold Inc. of Ohio, whose touch-screen machines have caused so many problems they've been decertified in several states. That "bargain," if cheaper unreliable machines can be considered such, was to have expired yesterday but has been extended one more week.


"The county may be on the verge of making a big mistake, but they're being pressured into it," said Dr. Eckhardt, who lectures on operating systems at Carnegie Mellon University and has served as an elections judge in Mt. Lebanon since 1997.


"The federal government is pushing people to run down the stairs at high rate of speed, and the state government is sticking broom handles out as they pass."


Lucky for us, some diligent folks are fighting for the system's integrity. Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Bucks County, said he will introduce legislation to protect local governments from penalties arising from the Help America Vote Act, as long as they've acted in good faith to update their equipment but have been unable to meet the May deadline.


There have been several lawsuits as well. A new one was added yesterday, courtesy of Richard King, founder of PA-Verified Voting.


"We desperately need to buy time," Mr. King said, so that Pennsylvania Senate Bill 977 (House Bill 2000) can pass. That bill would safeguard the system, not just through paper records but also routine audits of 5 percent of the vote.


"If the audit matches the electronic vote, you know you have a good election," he said. "If it doesn't match, the paper becomes the official record of the vote. Every computer expert I know of says this is what you need."


Mr. King filed suit without a lawyer but would be overjoyed if some civic-minded attorney would volunteer to help him out on this. Meanwhile, he urges people to contact their state legislators through


The critical nature of this issue is beyond dispute.


"Either voting machines are ready to be sensibly and reliably deployed or they're not," said Dr. Eckhardt. "If they're ready, the state should certify them. If they're not ready, we shouldn't be deploying them. There's no emergency here, nobody is dying."


The county board of elections has done a conscientious job so far and should continue its refusal to be railroaded. The electoral process only works when the public has faith in it. And once that faith is flushed away, it's awfully hard to get it back.


(Sally Kalson can be reached at 412-263-1610 or


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