Pity the frustration of Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and his colleagues on the county elections board. They find themselves in an impossible position with a pressing deadline that threatens a loss of almost $12 million in federal funds.
Pity all public officials across the nation who have made a good-hearted effort to comply with the demands of the Help America Vote Act and find themselves rushed and uncertain.
But, most of all, pity American voters who stand a fair chance of seeing their votes miscounted and their suspicions aroused. That could happen in Allegheny County, which took a fateful decision Friday that could backfire.
When HAVA passed in 2002, it was billed as an antidote to the dysfunction surrounding the 2000 presidential election, particularly the events in Florida that shamed the democratic process. Voting standards would be set across America and computer technology would be employed to eliminate the chance of hanging chads.
But because these aspirations were ahead of the technology, what we have now is a patchwork mess as the deadline arrives for primaries. Some counties may find their new machines work well enough; others may discover the cure is worse than the disease.
Unfortunately, Allegheny County could find itself in the latter category. In the first place, the county was forced to replace tried and true mechanical machines in order to comply with HAVA. Worse, it has decided to settle for second-best among touch-screen computer models (arguably third-best, because the system it initially focused on, Diebold Inc., had its own problems).
The county originally selected a model from Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., a touch-screen machine that promised to be easy to use and could be updated to include a paper record if Pennsylvania allowed (for the moment, the secretary of state says paper trails compromise the legal requirement that voting be private). But the Sequoia model had software problems and was not certified by the state.
Last Friday, the county elections board voted to go with iVotronic touchscreen machines made by Nebraska-based Elections Systems & Software. Unfortunately, these have experienced problems elsewhere. Moreover, the board was told that they do not comply with newly formulated standards on accessibility for voters with disabilities.
In this situation, Allegheny County shouldn't be moving full speed ahead. It should seriously consider leasing machines, an option put forward by elections board member Dave Fawcett, the Republican councilman from Oakmont. Mr. Fawcett and his supporters want optical scanner machines, because -- unlike the touch-screen machines currently offered -- they can be verified without offending any law (which is desirable).
While the Post-Gazette doesn't think that optical scanners are the way of the future, we recognize an immediate problem: We aren't sure that the iVotronics machines are sufficiently reliable. We think the county would do better to lease optical scanner machines as a safer bet before committing long-term to a touch-screen system that doesn't meet all the voters' needs. The technology just doesn't seem to be there yet -- nor are all the legal problems resolved. In this situation, the best option is to play for time.