Friday, January 18, 2008

A PA Electoral Warning?

I’ve been thinking about this article written by Clive Thompson in the New York Times magazine (dated 1/6) for a little while, and I just wanted to share this excerpt…

IF YOU WANTED to know where the next great eruption of voting-machine scandal is likely to emerge, you’d have to drive deep into the middle of Pennsylvania. Tucked amid rolling, forested hills is tiny Bellefonte. It is where the elections board of Centre County has its office, and in the week preceding the November (2007) election, the elections director, Joyce McKinley, conducted a public demonstration of the county’s touch-screen voting machines. She would allow anyone from the public to test six machines to ensure they worked as intended.

“Remember, we’re here to observe the machines, not debate them,” she said dryly. The small group that had turned out included a handful of anti-touch-screen activists, including Mary Vollero, an art teacher who wore pins saying “No War in Iraq” and “Books Not Bombs.” As we gathered around, I could understand why the county board had approved the purchase of the machines two years ago. For a town with a substantial elderly population, the electronic screens were large, crisp and far easier to read than small-print paper ballots. “The voters around here love ’em,” McKinley shrugged.

But what’s notable about Centre County is that it uses the
iVotronic — the very same star-crossed machine from Sarasota (FL in 2000). Given the concerns about the lack of a paper trail on the iVotronics, why didn’t Centre County instead buy a machine that produces a paper record? Because Pennsylvania state law will not permit any machine that would theoretically make it possible to figure out how someone voted. And if a Diebold AccuVote-TSX, for instance, were used in a precinct where only, say, a dozen people voted — a not-uncommon occurrence in small towns — then an election worker could conceivably watch who votes, in what order, and unspool the tape to figure out how they voted. (And there are no alternatives; all touch-screen machines with paper trails use spools.) As a result, nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s counties bought iVotronics.

Though it has gone Democratic in the last few presidential elections, Pennsylvania is considered a swing state. As the political consultant James Carville joked, it’s a mix of red and blue: you’ve got Pittsburgh and Philadelphia at either end and Alabama in the middle.

It also has 21 electoral-college votes, a relatively large number that could decide a tight presidential race. Among election-machine observers, this provokes a shudder of anticipation. If the presidential vote is close, it could well come down to a recount in Pennsylvania. And a recount could uncover thousands of votes recorded on machines that displayed aberrant behavior — with no paper trail. Would the public accept it? Would the candidates? As Candice Hoke, the head of Ohio’s Center for Election Integrity, puts it: “If it was Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, everyone is saying it’s going to be Pennsylvania in 2008.”

The prospect of being thrust into the national spotlight has already prompted many counties to spar over ditching their iVotronics. The machines were an election issue in Centre County in November, with several candidates for county commissioner running on a pledge to get rid of the devices. (Two won and are trying to figure out if they can afford it.) And the opposition to touch-screens isn’t just coming from Democrats. When the Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006, some Santorum voters complained that the iVotronics “flipped” their votes before their eyes. In Pittsburgh, the chief opponent of the machines is David Fawcett, the lone Republican on the county board of elections. “It’s not a partisan issue,” he says. “And even if it was, Republicans, at least in this state, would have a much greater interest in accuracy. The capacity for error is big, and the error itself could be so much greater than it could be on prior systems.”
And if God forbid any of this is realized, I’m sure every Republican in the universe will descend on Pennsylvania as if by magic to “monitor the election results” and do absolutely nothing more than that this November.


Update: And in other voting news, all I can say in response to this is Go Rush, Go! (the good one, that is).

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