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Monday, February 06, 2006

Voting and computers in Allegheny County

Three cheers for the Libertarian and fellow board member Dave Eckhardt and his CMU
colleague, Dan Sleator, for their Forum article in the 2/5/2006 Post-Gazette. It outlines the risks facing Allegheny County in making a hasty selection of computer voting systems.

The piece clearly presents the potential frailty of such computer voting systems and the folly of not having a backup (paper trail) as an integral part of those system. Their impeccable credentials strengthen the warning.

Sadly, HAVA is just one more in a long line of intrusive, knee-jerk, federal mandates. It may do for voting what FEMA did for disaster relief.

PS -- They suggest contacting our County Council members with our concerns given a public meeting on this topic this Tuesday, February 7th. Here is a little more contact information for County Council and County Executive.

Forum: Computers and voting -- a dangerous mix

Computer scientists Daniel Sleator and David Eckhardt say that Allegheny County should delay buying newfangled machines until there is no doubt about them

The future of our voting is up for grabs. Allegheny County is about to upgrade our voting machine infrastructure to dramatically increase accessibility to the blind and the disabled -- without causing a local budget crunch. At the same time, we're risking the integrity and fairness of every vote we'll cast for the next decade. Concerned voters -- and we hope that means you -- should speak up right now to protect your voting rights.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed after the debacle of the 2000 election, provides federal money for counties across the nation to purchase new voting equipment. At first glance this seems like a great thing -- we get better voting machines, and the federal government pays for it. But instead Allegheny County, like many others across the country, faces a serious dilemma.

Aside from supply problems -- many counties are buying in a rush as the federal deadline approaches -- there are very few acceptable machines available, and many of those have not yet received legal certification by the state of Pennsylvania. And we can't just pass up the HAVA-money opportunity in favor of our reliable old lever machines -- we would face fines and lawsuits for not complying with the accessibility provisions of HAVA.

This federal/state standoff could be dismissed as government as usual. But voters here and across the country are mobilizing because they fear the collateral damage: we may end up with machines which won't count our votes accurately. This is no baseless Internet rumor -- it's already happening.

One popular type of machine, called DRE (Direct Recording Electronic), is basically a computer in a box. Voters use buttons or a touch-screen to tell the computer who they wish to vote for, and at the end of the day the computer provides election officials with the totals for each race.

Many people, including many computer professionals, believe this is an unsafe approach. We know that bug-free software is incredibly difficult to write, even after millions of dollars and intensive testing. For example, the first launch of the European Space Agency's Ariane 5 rocket self-destructed after 37 seconds due to a design flaw in its software -- which had been produced in accordance with strict software engineering practices.

We also know that tiny changes in program code can result in dramatic, unpredictable or even invisible behavior changes -- which could cause a voting machine to lose votes or assign one candidate's votes to another.

These are not mere academic concerns.

The Board of Elections of Montgomery County, Md., reported that in the 2004 presidential election 7 percent of their voting machines, manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, failed on election day. Some failed to start in the morning and others had hardware problems. Even worse, 106 units froze during voting, often just as a voter pressed the "Cast Ballot" button. The board wrote, "The voter leaves the
polling place with little or no confidence that their vote was counted."

With a DRE your vote is at the mercy of the computer -- it could be lost forever without a trace.

Also, an audit by the secretary of state of California found that Diebold had installed uncertified software on machines there, in violation of state law. These reports should concern you because Diebold was the apparent front-runner at last Tuesday's meeting of the county's Board of Elections.

These problems with DRE machines have launched a movement, endorsed by many computer professionals, to require voting machines with a voter-verifiable audit-trail (see

Such systems store voter choices inside the computer and on human-readable paper. If there is any question about what the computer did, the paper allows for an independent audit.

Many states have passed laws requiring such an audit trail, and our Legislature is considering doing the same in Senate Bill 977 and House Bill 2000.

We do not concur with the conclusions of the Post-Gazette's Friday editorial "Vote on the Voting." We believe that reliability of the vote should outweigh the alleged (but hardly proven) convenience of touch-screen machines over paper ballots.

Our republic depends on voter confidence that election outcomes are fair and true. We therefore make these recommendations:

** Given the rapid innovation in the voting machine market and the time necessary for a smooth deployment of any new machines, Allegheny County should delay HAVA
implementation -- for several years if possible. If not, we recommend using our existing machines for the May primary and deferring HAVA implementation until at least November.

** We believe every voter is entitled to a voter-verifiable paper audit trail. The only machines able to give the audit trail that are currently certified by the state are precinct-count optical-scan units. After marking his or her choices on a paper ballot, a voter feeds it into a scanner, which checks the ballot for consistency and counts the votes. These machines have proven in many counties to be practical and cost-effective.

** The county should choose a vendor who clearly inspires voter confidence. It is
difficult to read the reports issued by the California and Maryland election officials and come away with confidence in Diebold's products.

To their credit, Allegheny County Council and the Board of Elections, chaired by county Chief Executive Dan Onorato, have opened their deliberations to the public and solicited public input. The next Board of Elections meeting will be Tuesday at 2 p.m. in Conference Room 1 of the County Courthouse, and it could conclude with a purchasing decision. You can express your opinion in person or through your County Council representative (

Daniel Sleator is a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (sleator@ David Eckhardt is a lecturer in computer science at Carnegie Mellon and has served as a judge of elections in Mt. Lebanon since 1997 (David.Eckhardt@

Hat tip to Mark C.


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