County says it can't audit voting machines
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Allegheny County cannot verify the software in its touch-screen voting machines is what the state certified when it allowed paperless voting machines, county officials say, because the state provides no mechanism for such an audit.
After months of prodding by VoteAllegheny, an advocacy group, County Council could approve legislation Tuesday asking the county Elections Division to conduct a random-sample audit of about 40 of the county's 4,700 iVotronic touch-screen machines.
The objective is to verify the authenticity of the software loaded in the voting machines, which the county started using in 2006.
But Tim Johnson, director of the county's Department of Administrative Services, says such an audit cannot be done -- and certainly not before the Nov. 4 election -- because the state has no procedures in place to allow counties access to the software they need to perform such an audit.
"We have asked the state for what it would take for us to do this verification, and the response is: 'No one has ever asked us,'" said Mr. Johnson, whose department overseas the Elections Division.
He has asked County Council not to approve the legislation, which would require the county to audit its voting machines by Oct. 21, "because that would require us to carry out an audit, which is beyond our control."
Mr. Johnson said it also would call into question the integrity of the voting machines, and by extension the election, when there is nothing so far to suggest that the county's touch-screen machines are vulnerable.
County officials have said they are open to the concept of software verification, even though the ES&S iVotronic machines, which County Executive Dan Onorato approved, have given them no reason to doubt their security.
In 2006, Allegheny County spent $12 million of a federal grant to purchase the machines, which are used in more than 20 counties, including Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Greene, Mercer and Westmoreland.
"It would be irresponsible for me to try and do [software verification] in the space of three weeks. We don't want to play with this," Mr. Johnson said. And even if the software were available, he added, it is too late to start an audit now because it would have to be carried out through a bidding process, which could take up to three months.
After the election, Mr. Johnson said, he will propose a task force to work with the Pennsylvania Department of State toward a process by which counties can verify the software that the state certified.
Allegheny County, he added, is far ahead of many counties that use similar machines in its voting machine security protocol. It includes round-the-clock security of the machines, delivery practices, tabulation and auditing, and logic and accuracy tests.
David Eckhardt, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of VoteAllegheny, said both the county and the state have been dragging their feet on software verification for years.
"We have been calling for verification for at least two years now. It's not like this election was scheduled suddenly. We knew it was coming since 1789," he said.
Dr. Eckhardt and VoteAllegheny members, who have been calling for a software audit since June, contend that the iVotronic touch-screen machines are especially vulnerable because they are software-dependent and susceptible to break-ins.
They cite problems with similar touch-screen machines in Florida, Ohio, California, Georgia, Indiana, Idaho and Iowa, among other states, to argue that this paperless voting system has time and again proven itself vulnerable.
Studies by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State University and Florida State University "have demonstrated existing vulnerabilities [in the touch-screen voting] system," Collin Lynch, president of VoteAllegheny, said in a memo released this week.
County Councilman Charles Martoni, D-Swissvale, who sponsored the software verification bill together with council members Amanda Green, D-Stanton Heights, and William Robinson, D-Hill District, said he will continue to push for "whatever can be done to get some kind of audit done before Election Day."
First Published October 4, 2008 12:00 am