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
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
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
"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
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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