By Marybeth Kuznik, VotePA

June 26, 2006

Centre County represents the heart of Pennsylvania in more ways than one.

A physical and cultural crossroads, and a meeting point, Centre County is something of a microcosm of the Keystone State in general. Nestled between mountain ridges and located at the geographical center of Pennsylvania, Centre is home to the main campus of the Pennsylvania State University along with much new industry and development. But in contrast, the county also contains thousands of acres of fertile farmland and traditional ways from the past. Centre County citizens and voters encompass the youthful energy of the Penn State students, progressive ideals of many faculty members, and traditional conservative views of rural residents. The diversity, cultural mix, and climate of knowledge and learning found in Centre County reflects the legacy and true spirit of William Penn's 'great experiment.'

Perhaps more than any other county in the state, Centre initially seemed ideally poised to make the wise choice of a paper-based, verifiable optical scan system after its citizens became involved in the process of voting machine selection. But sadly, after months of advocacy and educational work by active, concerned voters and poll workers, the Centre County Election Board voted to buy paperless iVotronic touchscreens last week in a 2-1 party-line vote. Centre County will now 'join the masses' of counties nationwide that trust their democracy and their sacred right to vote to the accuracy of the privately-held ES&S Corporation's proprietary counting software.

The Centre County voting machine saga took a turn in late November 2005 when pollworker Mary Vollero tuned into "Washington Journal" on C-Span and caught a segment with Mark Crispin Miller, author of the book "Fooled Again" about the 2004 election and the serious problems with voting in our country.

In the course of the interview, Mark Crispin Miller referred viewers to the website, which Vollero subsequently visited. Through a link on she reached and the VotePA alliance of groups and individuals working for election integrity and accurate voting systems in Pennsylvania.

After connecting with VotePA, Vollero swung into action. Within days, she and other volunteers had organized a forum called "Counting Every Vote!" sponsored by The State College Peace Center, the American Association of University Women, and the Centre County League of Women Voters. Although there were warnings of a blizzard to start later that evening, over 50 citizens turned out at the State College Community Building to watch the Special Edition of the movie Votergate and to hear VotePA founder Marybeth Kuznik talk of her experiences with the Ohio Recount and why it is so important that we protect our democracy with voter-verified paper records or ballots along with routine audits of all elections.

Among the attendees that evening was Chris Exarchos, chair of Centre County Commissioners and member of the Election Board. A lively town meeting type discussion ensured, during which Mr. Exarchos expressed that he had serious concerns about paperless voting methods that do not allow voters to verify their choices.

As the first flakes of a beautiful snowfall began to drift down through the streets of State College, people left the meeting that evening with a positive sense of action and the goal of protecting Centre County's votes with voter-verified paper ballots. The Centre Daily Times ran special articles and opinion pieces, and Penn State Public Broadcasting featured the issue on its regional "Pennsylvania Inside Out" television program. Shortly after the initial public meeting, an active citizens' group called the Centre County Coalition of Concerned Voters was formed.

The Centre County Coalition of Concerned Voters worked throughout the coming months to educate the County Commissioners, pollworkers, and rank-and-file voters about available voting systems, costs, problems observed with paperless machines in other areas, and more. The citizens attended many meetings, and distributed information through media and other channels.

Everyone thought that success was achieved when the commissioners announced that they would lease a precinct-count optical scan system from ES&S to meet the May 16 Primary Election deadline to comply with HAVA. With the AutoMARK ballot marker newly certified for use in Pennsylvania, many believed that Centre County would end up with the true 'gold standard' for verifiable voting systems.

But in typical ES&S style, the vendor informed counties that AutoMARK wasn't available, and to meet the accessibility requirement in time for the deadline they could only supply them instead with iVotronic touchscreens. With ES&S playing games in other Pennsylvania counties regarding supply of machines prior to the deadline, this was an offer that Centre County apparently felt they could not refuse. The Centre County Commissioners accepted a blended system of M-100 precinct count optical scanners, and paperless iVotronics.

Prior to the primary, ES&S outdid itself to promote the iVotronic in Centre and other Pennsylvania counties. Information and misinformation abounded as to how voters and officials would find paperless touchscreen voting machines easy and "fantastic" to use. Conveniently, ES&S kept very quiet about the lack of full accessibility (no binary switch for sip and puff device, etc.) and how many problems they were having with these machines in other states. Voters were urged to try the touchscreens instead of using the "old-fashioned" optical scan paper ballots on Primary Day.

Many Centre County polling places experienced problems with the iVotronic machines during the May 16 Primary. Poll workers had great difficulties in opening machines and printing out zero tapes to post before the polls opened as required by Pennsylvania law. Using administration codes supplied by ES&S, "time travel" zero tapes were printed out many hours after the first voters had cast votes (even as late as evening), a phenomenon also documented in Allegheny County and other areas using the iVotronic.

Despite all these problems in his county, and despite his initial pledged concern for the security of Centre County's votes being cast on paperless machines, Commissioner Chris Exarchos became an even stronger yes-man for the paperless ES&S machines following the primary. In what was almost a mirror of Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato's statements, Exarchos was quoted in local press as claiming he would rather not change machines but that he thinks the ES&S iVotronic is a secure choice.

And exactly like Onorato before him, last week Exarchos led his election board to the 2-1 decision along party lines to purchase the iVotronic, despite active public support for an optical scan system. The only difference was that in Allegheny, two Democrats wanted the paperless touchscreens (Republican Dave Fawcett held out for optical scan), but in Centre the two votes for the iVotronic were Republican, with Democrat Leonard Holliday in favor of paper ballots and scanners.

The Centre County Election Board decision was heartbreaking to the dedicated activists of the Centre County Coalition of Concerned Voters who have worked so long and hard for a voter-verified paper ballot in their county. Nonetheless, they vow to fight on.

In the words of Mary Vollero, "Even though our county has selected the iVotronic, our fight for verified paper ballots is not over. It's a national issue and the we have to work to educate voters on the importance of a Voter Verified Paper Ballot. We will have to be vigilant about organizing poll workers, poll watchers, and EXIT POLLS in November."

Indeed this battle is not over, folks. Centre County represents not only heartland of Pennsylvania, but the heart of our people as well.