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Punch-card ballots: ‘Awful’ or just misunderstood?

Marjorie Long, of Cranberry, who has been voting for 56 years, knows the problems with punch-card ballots.

“I think we should go back to old-fashioned voting machines,” said Long, 77, a retired school nurse who cast her first vote in 1948 on a paper ballot. “I know they are cumbersome, but they seem like the safest.”

Long, a member of the state’s Voters Hall of Fame for casting a ballot in more than 50 consecutive November elections, said punch-card ballots can be confusing and difficult for people with bad eyesight.

Eleven Pennsylvania counties, including Butler and Washington, use punch-card ballots, which came under fire in wrangling this month over the date of the California gubernatorial recall election. A federal law approved after the Florida recount battle in the 2000 presidential race requires that counties be prepared to replace punch-card and lever voting machines — such as those used in Allegheny County — by 2004.

Pennsylvania Department of State spokesman Brian McDonald said punch-card balloting and lever machines ultimately will have to be replaced, but federal officials have not decided when or by what. The Help America Vote Act passed in October 2002 called for a Federal Election Assistance Commission to make those decisions, but the agency has not been formed.

McDonald said as soon as the commission begins its work, the state will ask that Pennsylvania counties be given until at least 2006 to update voting equipment.

Regis Young, director of elections in Butler County, said he did not know when Butler would update its punch-card system, which could cost $1.6 million.

“Since I’ve been here in 1988, I’ve never seen such confusion and frustration that counties and states are going through right now,” Young said.

He said the punch-card system has gotten a “bad rap.”

Yet critics say an update of punch-card voting is long overdue.

“Punch cards are the worst form of voting over all other known methods,” said Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who has spent 20 years as an examiner of computerized voting systems. “It’s an awful, awful, awful method.”

Larry Spahr, Washington County elections director, said punch cards have been accurate and dependable in the mostly rural county.

“This system counts damn accurately,” Spahr said. “That is not to say it’s completely infallible. The accuracy depends on the voter himself.”

Attorney Gregory Harvey, of Philadelphia, examined the records of punch-card counties Chester and Centre after the 2000 presidential election, when punch-card voting fiascoes in Florida introduced the nation to pregnant and hanging chads. His work found 701 ballots with more than the allowable votes for an office — among the 189,750 ballots cast.

That’s an error rate of less than 0.4 percent, which is considerable acceptable.

“I’m not saying punch cards are an unmitigated disaster,” Shamos said. “If the equipment is functioning smoothly, you have educated voters and very good security … if you do all those things you can indeed have a reasonably accurate punch-card election.”

All of Allegheny County’s polling places have had lever machines since the late 1960s.

“I’m sure we are going to replace them,” said Mark Wolosik, director of elections in Allegheny County. “I’m just not sure with what.”

The county’s 850-pound machines are hauled to the 1,310 voting precincts two times each year. The department has an annual budget of $5 million.

Wolosik said it could cost more than $16 million to upgrade the county’s voting system with a direct-recording system, such as a touch screen.

The federal government has allotted about $3,100 per polling place for upgrades, but election officials said they have not seen that money.

Spahr said touch-screen voting is not foolproof. It has no auditable paper trail in case of a recount request and could be susceptible to hackers.

Beaver County election officials said they have been using touch-screen voting since 1998 and have not had any trouble.

“The answers will eventually come, we just have to wait for them,” Wolosik said.


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