Pa. lacks paper backup to voting electronically

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WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania is one of a shrinking number of states that doesn't require its electronic voting machines to have some type of visible paper backup, a feature that has frustrated scores of voting rights activists and computer experts.

That could change when Democrats take control of Congress next year.

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said this month that he expects the new majority to quickly enact his bill mandating the use of "voter-verified" paper trails in every election system in the country, compelling many local governments, including several Western Pennsylvania counties, to purchase costly upgrades for their equipment.

It would be the first major change to the federal Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, a law that grew out of Florida's 2000 presidential fiasco and authorized billions of dollars in aid for high-tech voting machinery.

Nationwide, one-third of all voters used new machines for the first time this year. The results pleased many election officials, but some activists point to significant mishaps as proof that electronic voting is far from perfect.

In Florida's 13th Congressional District, Democrat Christine Jennings has asked a judge to order a new election because about 18,000 voters in Sarasota County failed to make choices in the race on Nov. 7, even though they cast votes in other races on the ballot. That "undervote" rate is about six times higher than in the other counties in the district. Overall, Republican Vern Buchanan defeated Ms. Jennings by 369 votes.

Ms. Jennings and her supporters say the unusual number of missing votes throws doubt on the reliability of the touch-screen voting machines used by the county, the ES&S iVotronic. Florida election officials already have conducted a manual recount. But, on the iVotronic, all they could do was reprint the results from the machine.

"The point is, I can make all of my allegations. The Republican Party can make all of its allegations. Nobody knows the truth," said Rep. Robert Wexler, a Boca Raton Democrat, during a recent news conference with Mr. Holt in Washington, D.C. "Because, without a voter-verified paper trail, we cannot know the truth."

Both ES&S and Sarasota County officials argue that the voting equipment functioned well during the election.

ES&S, a Nebraska company, is the most popular vendor in Western Pennsylvania. Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Greene and Westmoreland counties all have purchased the firm's iVotronic.

Allegheny County deployed more than 4,600 iVotronics on Nov. 7, experiencing minor problems. Some poll workers had trouble printing the "zero-tape," a piece of paper that shows the machines had no votes at the beginning of the day. Technical glitches forced a site in Monroeville to use paper ballots for 45 minutes.

"The difficulties that we had were minimal," said Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for county Chief Executive Dan Onorato. "We were very pleased with the performance of our ES&S machines."

On Election Day, the state Republican committee expressed concerns that a few machines were switching votes from Republicans to Democrats. Officials with the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, didn't find any evidence of such problems, according to Cathy Ennis, a department spokeswoman.

Ms. Ennis said her office hasn't had a chance to look at Mr. Holt's bill in depth. But Michael Shamos, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a voting machine examiner for the state, has been a vocal critic of the congressman's proposals.

He argues that some printers on touch-screen machines violate a voter's constitutional right to privacy. Also, he cites problems experienced in Ohio's Cuyahoga County in the May primary election, when many paper ballots became damaged and unreadable.

"The fundamental idea, which is having a voter-verified record, is a good idea," Dr. Shamos said in an e-mail message. "What's bad is requiring it to be on paper and what's worse is making the paper record the indisputable official ballot."

Yet thousands of computer experts challenge Dr. Shamos' views, and they're backing the efforts of the California-based Verified Voting Foundation. They largely support the use of fill-in-the-bubble optical scan ballots as the safest voting method.

Also, more than two dozen states already have added their own paper-trail requirement to HAVA's mandates. Similar legislation has stalled in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

"Pennsylvania is starting to look like the odd duck here," said Pamela Smith, nationwide coordinator for Verified Voting.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House speaker, said addressing problems with voting technology would be a "priority" in the 110th Congress.

"We have to take a comprehensive look at making sure every vote is counted," he said.

Mr. Holt's bill also would require local governments to conduct routine audits of their equipment. It would grant $150 million in aid nationally for the cost of adding paper printers to voting machines.

Mr. Evanto said Allegheny County already has negotiated a $3 million deal with ES&S for printer attachments when and if the law changes.


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 1-202-488-3479.


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