Voting machines, key races cast election spotlight on Pa.

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WASHINGTON -- Republicans and Democrats plan to deploy a legion of poll watchers and lawyers Tuesday as voters take new electronic machines through their first hotly contested general election, with Democrats hoping to defeat several vulnerable Pennsylvania Republicans.

All but four of the state's 67 counties are using new machines this year because of a law enacted by Congress in the wake of Florida's 2000 election debacle. Nationwide, one-third of all voters will use new voting equipment for the first time in a general election.

The nonpartisan group electionline.org has placed Pennsylvania among 10 states on a "watch" list for Tuesday because of its potential for voting problems.

"We're not saying, 'Look at Pennsylvania -- it's the next Florida,'" said Dan Seligson, editor of the Web site, which tracks election reform efforts. But along with new machines, "Pennsylvania has several high-stakes races that are going to be close. Put those ingredients together and there's a reason to watch."

Officials from both parties agree. T.J. Rooney, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said about 1,500 lawyers will monitor polling sites on Election Day.

"Clearly we believe that the people in the Department of State have done a good job at getting ready for the election," he said. "But we'd be foolish to not have a plan in place to address problems if and when they occur."

The Pennsylvania Republican Party is still recruiting Election Day observers, said Michael Barley, a party spokesman.

Some high-profile computer mishaps during primary elections in other states, including recent problems in Maryland, have demonstrated the difficulty of switching technologies.

"I know other states have had problems," said Larry Smar, a spokesman for Bob Casey, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate. "Hopefully things will go smoothly here. Our focus is really on getting out our message to as many voters as possible between now and Election Day."


   

Graphic: Electronic voting

   

Harry VanSickle, the state's election commissioner, said he has visited about 20 counties in recent weeks to discuss preparations with local officials.

"Obviously, they're a little nervous," he said. "But they really have a quiet confidence that they are ready."

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, calling on local governments across the country to replace aging lever and punch-card machines by the first election with federal candidates in 2006. For Pennsylvania, that was the May primary.

A slow certification process for a new generation of technology, including touch-screen units that resemble ATMs and optical scan machines that read fill-in-the-bubble sheets, prevented many Pennsylvania counties from choosing new machines until just months before the primary.

ES&S, a Nebraska company, was the most popular vendor. The majority of Western Pennsylvania counties -- including Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Greene and Westmoreland -- picked the firm's iVotronic.

Armstrong, Clarion, Somerset and Washington counties picked the AccuVote-TSX, built by Diebold Election Systems of North Canton, Ohio. Fayette County chose the Hart InterCivic eSlate.

State and local officials say the machines performed well in the primary, although there were some problems. In Allegheny County, a few poll workers had trouble printing the "zero-vote" count from the iVotronic before balloting started.

Tuesday's election will present a much bigger test. County officials are predicting that nearly a half-million voters will head to the polls, and they'll vote on about 4,600 iVotronics, 2,000 more than were used in the primary. An extra 100 machines will be held in reserve, according to Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

About 300 county workers will help with technical support. Poll workers at each of the county's 1,314 precincts will have cell phones and contact information for "rovers" who will be traveling in defined areas.

Over the summer, the county revamped its training program for 6,000 poll workers to address issues like the zero-tape printout. It also organized smaller classes that would allow workers to have more practice time.

Training sessions, which take place through this weekend, are on the county Web site: www.county.allegheny.pa.us. On Sunday, poll workers can attend review sessions at the IBEW Hall on the South Side from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

David A. Eckhardt, a lecturer in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a poll worker in Mt. Lebanon, said problems in the primary, including the zero-tape issue, were serious because they show that the machines are poorly designed and could be susceptible to less obvious malfunctions.

He is among a sizeable group of computer experts from across the country who argue electronic machines need a paper trail that voters can check before casting their ballots. A majority of states have such requirements, while similar legislation has stalled in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

"The only way that you can be absolutely sure that your vote doesn't count is to stay home. So come out and vote," he said. But, "ask yourself, 'Do I believe that the machine recorded my vote as I intended?' If you don't feel that way, start calling your elected representatives."

State election officials say they are testing their machines thoroughly, but Mr. Eckhardt said those tests aren't enough. "You have to be absolutely crystal clear that [the machines] are running the right software," he said. "And we're not crystal clear."

Campaigns are deferring to government officials and the state party organizations on voting security and accuracy.

"Our focus is squarely on talking to voters," said Angelo Terrana, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, who is locked in a tough re-election fight with Democrat Jason Altmire. "We're anticipating that the machines will work fine."

Party officials say the same thing. But they're not taking any chances, according to Mr. Barley, the GOP spokesman.

"It's definitely something we're monitoring, and we have a very competent legal team that will be assisting us," he said.

State law calls for a recount if the victory margin is less than half a percentage point.


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 202-488-3479.


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