Allegheny County to examine vote machine concerns

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Allegheny County officials are examining reports that some of the county's thousands of new touch-screen voting machines never received certification from the state before the May 16 primary election.

The issue likely won't affect the outcome of the election, according to Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who tests voting machines for Pennsylvania.

But county Manager Jim Flynn said yesterday that officials will make a presentation to the three-member county elections board Monday, when the board certifies election results.

"We're looking at all aspects of this," he said. "We have a legal obligation to use certified software."

For the primary, the county replaced its lever machines with more than 2,600 iVotronic machines, built by Electronic Systems & Software of Nebraska, or ES&S, to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act.

Last week, VotePA, an advocacy group, released a report saying that ES&S had used two types of iVotronics, including one accessible to handicapped voters. The non-handicapped accessible machine has a slightly different setup and was never tested by Dr. Shamos, according to the report, co-authored by two local computer science experts.

An ES&S spokesman wasn't available for comment yesterday.

Dr. Shamos noted that ES&S and the county, after finalizing a contract in April, had little time to prepare for the primary. He said both would have to develop a better procedure for ensuring that all machines are properly certified before future elections.

"It is not at all clear that any of this was deliberate," Dr. Shamos said. "There is no reason to believe that [the machines] were corrupted or behaved differently."

He said he would examine the county's machines if the office of Secretary of State Pedro A. Cortes, who oversees elections in Pennsylvania, calls for new tests.

Overall, county officials were pleased with the performance of the new machines.

Still, several computer experts told Allegheny County Council yesterday that voters shouldn't have to simply trust the technology.

"Voters have no real assurance that their votes were counted," said David A. Eckhardt, a lecturer in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon and an author of the VotePA report.

He called on the county to use machines with paper trails that voters can check before casting their choices. Pennsylvania has not certified a paper printer for the iVotronic, but it has certified several optical scan systems that read fill-in-the-blank paper ballots.

Mr. Flynn said the county would complete its own report before officials decide how to proceed.

"We'd have to explore all options," he said.


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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