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Pennsylvania, State of Denial

Pennsylvania officials need to recognize the dangers of electronic voting.
 
 
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With the national spotlight on The Keystone State's April 22 Primary, many heads remain buried in sand when it comes to electronic voting.

In March 2004, Governor Ed Rendell announced a new tourism slogan for Pennsylvania: "The State of Independence". But with Pennsylvania officials continuing along in what seems to be mindless oblivion to the dangers of paperless electronic voting machines, perhaps Pennsylvania's slogan should be "The State of Denial" when it comes to elections.

Following the inconclusive Ohio and Texas Democratic primaries earlier this month, the national spotlight turned swiftly to Pennsylvania's April 22 election as the next battleground. And in the glare of that white-hot national spotlight it is more apparent than ever that there is great risk for electoral disaster in The Keystone State.

With fifty-one of its most populous counties still voting on completely paperless Direct Record Electronic machines, Pennsylvania remains one of the last twelve states to have passed no law requiring every vote to be backed up with a voter-verified paper record or ballot.

Time and time again Pennsylvania has had to replace failed electronic voting machines, bailing out counties and vendors at taxpayer expense. Pennsylvania has been plagued with a rash of problems caused by failures of paperless, unverifiable voting machines. These problems have ranged from extremely high levels of undervotes (indicating a large number of voters are not having their votes counted), to faulty programming and ballot preparation, to outright loss of votes due to machines being set up improperly on Election Day.

With huge party machine politics entrenched on both the Republican and Democratic sides, Pennsylvania had a long history of election irregularities and difficulties long before the rise of electronic voting. And although one of the state's most prominent suppliers of voting machines and supplies was convicted of election fraud, the paperless electronic voting machines his company originally developed continue to count the votes of nearly two and a half million Pennsylvanians to this very day.

But despite past problems and current warnings from computer scientists and neighboring states, Pennsylvania officials from County Commissioners and Election Directors to the Governor himself inexplicably continue to embrace paperless electronic voting. Their public mantra is that Pennsylvania elections on paperless electronic machines are secure and accurate.

How did The Keystone State become The State of Denial? To understand better, one first needs to look at Pennsylvania itself.

Physically located at the junction of our Northeast, Midwest, and Southern regions, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania embodies many cultures and ideologies. The electorate is made up of diverse populations including high-tech and well educated professionals, old-time second and third generation immigrant working classes that formerly worked in the state's mines and mills, farmers and other rural citizens (agriculture is Pennsylvania's #1 industry), and new immigrant communities. While traditionally moderate-to-liberal major cities dominate the southwest and southeast corners of the state, conservative politics have long been the tradition in the northern and central regions. This "red" area of the state, known as "The T" due to its T shape on a map, is what sparked James Carville's famous description of Pennsylvania as "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in the middle".

Pennsylvania has over 8 million registered voters as of November 2007. The state is almost evenly divided politically, with 3,883,378 Democratic voters and 3,245,271 Republicans, while 984,349 voters remain non-partisan or are members of other political parties.

With very close political registration numbers like this, and the long-standing balance and tensions between The Cities and The T, Pennsylvania is known as one of the most swinging of the swing states when it comes to voting. For decades Keystone State voters have flipped the Governorship back and forth between the two major parties like clockwork every 8 years. With Ed Rendell the current (Democratic) Governor, Pennsylvania's full-time General Assembly now contains a Republican majority in its Senate and a one-vote Democratic majority in the House, which due to a rather unprecedented compromise is led by a Republican Speaker.

And that same Pennsylvania General Assembly is famous for moving at a glacial pace when it comes to reforms, displaying what sometimes seems to be a particular aversion to updating and modernizing the state Election Code. One Pennsylvania law on the books right now requires all polling places to have a lantern in place to illuminate voting machines.

But in yet another peculiar twist, Pennsylvania was one of the early adopters of electronic voting. The Secretary of the Commonwealth first certified the Shouptronic 1242 Direct Record Electronic machines for use in Pennsylvania on July 3, 1984.

As far back as the 1990s there were problems recorded with electronic machines when the MicroVote system was removed from Montgomery County due to machines shutting down randomly and losing votes.

Despite this difficulty in the state's third largest voting jurisdiction, as the 21st Century dawned a number of Pennsylvania counties were moving voluntarily to purchase touchscreen and pushbutton electronic voting equipment. And as more counties adopted electronic voting, the ranks of counties dealing with problems grew. Some incidents resulted in serious losses of votes.

During the election of 2004, it is estimated that at least ten thousand votes were lost by the UniLect Patriot touchscreen voting system in Beaver, Mercer, and Greene counties. Some precincts in Mercer County had undervote rates of over seventy and eighty percent. If this were true it would mean that, in the incredibly important Presidential election, eight out of ten voters in those precincts simply did not care to vote for President! The far more probable scenario is that the UniLect machine failed to count most of those votes. With no voter verified paper record available on those machines to recount or audit, there was simply no way to reclaim those lost votes or even to know for sure exactly what happened.

In April 2005, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro Cortès finally decertified the UniLect Patriot voting machine for use in Pennsylvania elections after it failed to count votes correctly during the re-examination petitioned by citizens in Beaver, Mercer, and Greene counties.

Following the decertification of the its machine, the UniLect company asked the PA Department of State for a second re-examination. At this hearing, held in May 2005, the Patriot system failed even more spectacularly. The President of the UniLect company was unable to get his machine to record votes properly during the hearing. The result was that this system was decertified for use in Pennsylvania for the second time.

Eventually the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was forced to reimburse the three strapped UniLect counties so they could obtain alternative voting systems, effectively bailing out this vendor that provided an inferior product.

Nonetheless, statewide media paid little attention to the problem or to the expenditure. The affected counties quietly moved temporarily to a fallback paper-based optical scan system that was widely derided as old-fashioned and problematic by election directors still enamored with the deceptive ease of touch screens.

On May 17, 2005, a number of Danaher (formerly Shouptronic) DREs failed to record any votes in about half a dozen Berks County precincts during the Municipal Primary. Votes were apparently not recorded due to improper settings on the machine during the election, and improper memory cartridges being installed. With no paper records to audit or recount, a re-vote was called for, lawsuits were filed, and some voters never did get to cast a vote that was counted in that Primary.

Once again, if noticed at all, the loss of votes was dismissed by officials and media as a simple "glitch" or blamed on pollworker error.

With the Help America Vote Act taking effect for the first federal election of 2006, the rush was on to comply and get the federal money HAVA promised for the purchase of new machines. It seemed that no one in a position of authority wanted to buck the system by pointing out the electronic voting was an emperor without clothes.

The stage was set for a free-for-all as vendors readied themselves to vie for the windfall in voting machine sales, and denial became the order of the day in Pennsylvania.

 
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