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Groups cite flaws in electronic voting

County is urged to set up citizens advisory panel

Friday, June 02, 2006

By Moustafa Ayad, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Citing voter problems with new electronic machines during the May primary, advocacy groups yesterday urged Allegheny County to establish a citizens advisory panel.

The People for the American Way Foundation monitored polls in 15 districts in Allegheny County during the primary and concluded there were wide-ranging problems with the new iVotronic electronic voting machines.

Elections officials have said they were pleased with the debut of electronic touch-screen voting and that most voters quickly adapted to the new system. Officials said problems reported were isolated and could be remedied by November.

"We had problems but they were very few considering the size of the change we made," county Chief Executive Dan Onorato said the day after the primary.

The groups, which included the Black Political Empowerment Project, VotePA and the League of Young Voters, said problems fit into four distinct categories, including difficulties experienced by disabled voters and a lack of confidence in the new machines.

The groups have sent a letter to John DeFazio, chair of the county Board of Elections, listing the problems and requesting that he form an advisory panel before the November elections.

They alleged serious procedural, operational and design issues, which were documented in post-voting interviews and observations during the May 16 primary. They were also concerned that a number of absentee ballots were not counted.

"These aren't vending machines. They're voting machines," said Dr. David A. Eckhardt, a lecturer in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University and an author of the report. "What's at stake is more than 50 cents or filling out a refund form. Don't we deserve the best available assurance that these machines work right every time?"

The groups said the machines ran program code not legally certified for use in Pennsylvania and that the security model used by the county was ineffective and left little reason to believe the election results.

They also cited problems the county experienced, including the failure by some poll workers to obtain a printed "zero-vote" count from the machines before the polls opened at 7 a.m. The zero-vote count is necessary to ensure no votes are stored on the machines before official voting begins.

"Printing an honest zero tape before the polls open to show that each electronic ballot box is empty at the start of voting is one of the few safeguards these machines have," said Marybeth Kuznik, executive director of the statewide VotePa alliance.

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