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Green Party in court again with demand to examine county voting machines

With just days before Allegheny County must certify the results of the 2016 presidential election, Green Party candidate Jill Stein again is demanding to examine the electronic voting machines used here.

Candidates have a right to examine voting machines, the campaign argued in a filing Wednesday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, and “the Board of Elections improperly denied Dr. Stein the ability to exercise that right by refusing her request to have experts … determine whether they were working properly and had not been tampered with.”

It was not clear Wednesday when a hearing might be held on the matter, but time is short. Allegheny County is set to certify its results on Dec. 12. Pennsylvania must certify statewide returns the following day.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s presidential recount was halted Wednesday after three days, assuring Republican Donald Trump’s victory in the state, when a federal judge said he’ll abide by a court ruling that found Dr. Stein couldn’t seek another look at the vote.

The local dispute began Nov. 28, when more than 300 Allegheny County residents petitioned to retabulate the results compiled by voting machines in their districts. They also sought to have the machines themselves examined for signs of hacking — a rising concern this year in light of widely reported hacks of Democratic Party emails and state voter-registration databases

The county fulfilled the first request in 52 county precincts, mostly concentrated in Pittsburgh. On Monday morning, officials conducted a recanvass in which they compared the numbers stored on voting-machine memory cards with the results reported on Election Night. That review did not turn up any inconsistencies.

But county officials have resisted calls to submit the machines themselves to analysis, arguing that the Elections Division already verifies the programming of 20 randomly selected machines — out of more than 4,000 in use — prior to each election.

That left many recount supporters unsatisfied.

“I’m disappointed that they didn’t actually verify the accuracy of the machines,” said Alina Keebler, a Point Breeze recount supporter. “All they did was see if the number of votes coincided” with the earlier returns.

Prior to Monday’s recanvass, Stein attorney Douglas Lieb emailed the county, saying the Stein campaign would pay to conduct similar post-election testing on more voting machines. Elections Division attorney Allan Opsitnick rejected that offer in a letter the following day, noting that after a Dec. 2 court hearing on the recount, Common Pleas Judge Joseph James had not ordered such tests.

Wednesday’s filing asks the judge to do just that, arguing that the state Election Code gives candidates the right to examine the machines.

“Examination is, by definition, more active and more searching than simply standing by and watching the recanvass happen,” it argues. For electronic machines, an examination involves “examining [its] software, removable media, and electronic management system. That is how the machine works.”

Recount supporters, and some computer scientists, worry that machines that don’t retain a paper record of voters’ choices, like those used in Allegheny County, are especially vulnerable to hacking. The Stein campaign has made similar arguments in Philadelphia County, where voters also use paperless machines.

Even as the Greens were making that case in Allegheny County, however, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Abbe Fletman was rejecting it there.

Judge Fletman noted that the state Legislature allowed electronic voting machines in 1980, and “could have [provided] candidates with unbridled rights to examine electronic voting systems before, during and after elections. It did not and has not.” The court would not do so, either, she wrote, especially “when, as in this case, there is absolutely no evidence of any voting irregularities.”

But while the latest filing caught even recount supporters by surprise Wednesday, they hailed the development.

“I think this is a good thing,” said Audrey Glickman, secretary-treasurer of VoteAllegheny, an election reform group that has long been wary of paperless voting machines. “It is time our elected and appointed officials stop defending indefensible voting systems.”

County spokeswoman Amie Downs declined comment.

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. The Associated Press contributed.

First Published December 7, 2016 8:59 AM