Monday, August 21, 2006

Electronic voting machines opposed in suit

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Electronic voting machines opposed in suit
By Alison Hawkes, For the Herald-Standard

HARRISBURG - A coalition of voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit in state court Tuesday asking that the new multimillion-dollar electronic voting machines purchased this spring by Pennsylvania counties be decertified before the November election and replaced with systems that ensure a paper record of ballots.

The 26 plaintiffs, a cross section of voters from the so-called voting integrity movement as well as members of the Philadelphia branches of the Black Clergy and NAACP, are suing Pennsylvania Department of State Secretary Pedro Cortes in Commonwealth Court.

They say he and his agency oversaw the certification of seven types of ATM-style electronic voting machines that do not adequately safeguard against hacking and are vulnerable to computer malfunctions.

Fayette County was listed as using such machines in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are calling for voting systems with a paper record of each vote cast for the purposes of an independent recount, a requirement they say is guaranteed in the state's election code in its mandate for a "permanent physical record of each vote cast."

"The machines certified in Pennsylvania are inherently unreliable," said Michael Churchill, a lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia who is part of the law team handling the case. "They can be tampered with. They can malfunction and have a history of malfunctions which have disenfranchised voters all across the country.

"However, Department of State spokeswoman Leslie Amoros countered that electronic voting machines are safe to use and do have an ability to reconstruct an election through recording and later printing exact images of individual votes. Critics claim voters can't independently verify the accuracy of that backup as they cast their votes.

"The bottom line is these are systems that have been certified and thoroughly examined and that are certified in accordance with the law," Amoros said. "We have to certify them to ensure they provide accurate, secure and accessible elections."

If successful, the lawsuit could cost counties some of the millions of dollars they spent with federal aid to upgrade their voting systems. But Marian Schneider, a lawyer in the case, said counties may be able to recoup costs from vendors depending on the language of their contracts, or still use some of the components to their systems. Some counties also have not yet received their voting machines, she said.

"There's a bunch of options they could take," she said.

This is the latest lawsuit in what has been a rocky start for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversaw this year's federally mandated switch to newer machines amidst a persistent outcry from citizen groups.

In Westmoreland County earlier this year, a group of voters nearly threw the spring election into question with an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit arguing that voters must first approve new voting systems. Other lawsuits attacking certification of electronic voting machines followed suit.

The voting machine change is an outgrowth of the federal Help America Vote Act and was a response to the problems of hanging cads and butterfly ballots in the 2000 Florida debacle.

New machines in Pennsylvania went through their first test in this spring's primary, largely considered unproblematic.

"It went well overall, particularly since it's the first time using systems that met the HAVA requirements," said Amoros. "Most of the incidents that we became aware of were really ... things that could be addressed with additional training."

But plaintiffs attributed some of those training issues to problems with the machines. In Allegheny and Centre counties this year, iVotronic machines failed to print "zero tapes" showing no votes recorded on the machines before the polls opened. And in Philadelphia, 1,242 Danaher machines failed to activate or were unable to record write-in votes, preventing some from voting.

Plaintiffs also point out the 10,000-vote undercount in the 2004 presidential elections in Beaver, Mercer, and Greene counties. That machine snafu led the state elections department to ultimately decertify the UniLect Patriot touch-screen machines.

"Whatever the initial promise may have been for electronic voting we know now based on the consensus of computer security experts and actual experiences they are simply not ready for prime time," said attorney Lowell Finley, co-director of Voter Action, a group that has been part of similar suits in Colorado, California, Arizona and New Mexico.

More than half the states now are requiring some form of voter verified paper ballots, according to the critics. Without such a requirement, the swing-state of Pennsylvania was recently listed by good government watchdog Common Cause as one of 17 states at "high risk" for compromised election results because of electronic voting machine problems.

As written, the lawsuit would impact the 57 Pennsylvania counties using direct-recording electronic voting machines, which do not have paper backup capabilities.

Lawyers said the remaining counties would be unaffected because they chose one of the state's five optical scan machines, which allow voters to fill bubbles on paper ballots and a machine scans in the answers, like a standardized test.

The paper ballot is left at the booth as a hard backup to the vote.

Doylestown Township voter and plaintiff Janis Hobbes-Pellechio said she doesn't understand why Bucks was one of the counties that chose to replace its decades-old lever machines with Danaher, a touchscreen.

"They've made the whole electoral system complex. It's counting," said Hobbs-Pellechio. "It's left so many more avenues for things to go wrong and it doesn't have to be that way."

But Bucks County Commissioner Jim Cawley said the county's new Danaher system seemed the best suited to what commissioners were looking for. They're starting to demonstrate the machines to the public today at the county Grange Fair.

"The Danaher system best met that criteria - most accurate, user-friendly and cost-efficient," he said.

In a related matter, Bucks County Sen. Joe Conti has filed a bill to give voters the option to submit a paper ballot if they don't trust the electronic machines. His previous bill to require a voter verified paper record has been tied up in the Senate State Government Committee without a hearing since December, a staffer said.

Alison Hawkes can be reached at 717-705-6330 or Hyperlink> Hyperlink>.

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