Friday, January 5, 2001

City buying voting machines

by Dave Davies
Daily News Staff Writer

As the nation begins to grapple with election reform in the wake of Florida's chad-counting fiasco, Philadelphia is destined to be in the vanguard of the movement.

Due to an initiative begun two years ago, the city is now closing a deal to buy 3,500 new electronic voting machines and replace its aging mechanical-lever dinosaurs by the November election.

In doing so, officials hope to avoid the problems visited on some jurisdictions that have changed voting systems, and refute warnings from a few computer scientists that electronic voting systems are vulnerable to fraud.

City voter registration administrator and election veteran Bob Lee said the coming machines are the answer to a decades-old prayer.

"The Election-Day workers, the election boards, the voters, everybody is going to love these machines," Lee said.

Lee is a member of the task force that spent more than a year analyzing voting systems and vendors before settling on the Danaher machines the city will purchase for $18.5 million.

They'll present a full-faced ballot as the current lever machines do, but the votes will be recorded electronically and tallied instantly at the end of the day, with results printed on a register tape and encoded in a cartridge that will be transported to a counting center.

"We were after accuracy, more than speed," Lee said. "This will mean election workers can skip the step of reading all those counter numbers off the back of machines and recording them on four canvassing sheets at the end of a 15-hour day."

City Procurement Commissioner Lou Applebaum said the contract with Danaher will include machines, printers, tabulators and training, including an army of 1,800 who will fan out to city voting divisions on election day to smooth the transition.

The contract also calls for Danaher to dispose of the city's ancient mechanical voting units, which weigh up to 900 pounds each. But disposal won't happen until there's been an election conducted flawlessly.

Which is wise.

When Montgomery County dumped its 50-year old lever voting machines for electronic units by the Indiana-based manufacturer MicroVote in 1994, they bought a world of trouble.

The first county-wide election in 1995 was marked by so many long lines and widespread complaints that the county dropped the system after spending $4 million and bought new machines from Sequoia Pacific Corp.

MicroVote blamed the county for the problems and the two sides went to court. In November, a federal jury awarded the county more than $1 million in damages.

In the mid-90's New York City abandoned its plans to purchase new machines from Sequoia Pacific after tests raised questions about the tabulation software.

Lee said both those procurement efforts were flawed, and he's confident the exacting review Philadelphia conducted will minimize risks. The Danaher system Philadelphia is purchasing is used in several jurisdictions, including the state of Delaware.

Committee of Seventy director Fred Voigt said the system proved its worth in September when initial returns in the Republican gubernatorial primary gave John Burris a 44-vote edge.

A recount was done in two days, and the final 46-vote margin (the difference was absentees, not machine votes) was accepted as accurate.

"In Philadelphia when we have a close election like [State House Majority Leader] John Perzel's, it's a challenge," Voigt said.

He noted that the count in Perzel's case was considered valid, but it took two weeks and required checking the machine counter numbers against hand-written canvass sheets.

But to a small band of determined critics, direct recording electronic voting systems like the ones Philadelphia is buying, amount to invitations to vote-tampering.

Bryn Mawr College computer science professor Rebecca Mercuri has been warning against DRE voting systems since the early '90s. Her argument is simple: because votes disappear into a magic screen, there's no way to tell later if they were accurately recorded.

"The voter has no way of knowing if what they pushed on the screen is what was recorded on the computer," Mercuri said in an interview. "I can program a computer to show one thing on the screen, print a different thing on a printout and record something else on a cartridge."

Critics can point to few examples of electronic voting systems going haywire around the country, but they argue that's because of the inherent problem that tampering is undetectable.

A recount is quick and easy, but it only confirms what the computer recorded, whether it's accurate or not.

Mercuri believes the only way to make electronic systems truly auditable is for each voter to review a printed copy of his or her vote, which goes into a box, so it can be compared with the computer-recorded votes later if necessary.

Election official Lee said the Danaher system, which has been tested and certified by Federal Election Commission standards, has checks to detect tampering.

"When you record a vote on the machine, it gets recorded in three different files within the machine, and in two cartridges," Lee said. "It does an audit to make sure all of them match, and if they don't it automatically shuts down."

Tests done before each election are to provide another check, Lee said. He acknowledged that no system is tamper-proof, including the lever-machines now in use.

Mercuri's ideas have been picked up and touted by several conservative Internet sites, some of them warning about conspiracies to steal national elections.

City Councilman Michael Nutter, who sponsored the 1998 ballot referendum that resulted in the voting machine procurement, is glad the new machines are coming.

"It's not sexy or exciting," Nutter said, "but after what happened in Florida I think people will have a little more appreciation for the ability to conduct valid elections where we count all the votes."

Send e-mail to © 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.