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After complaints, Montco to retest voting machines

By Jeff Shields

Inquirer Staff Writer

Montgomery County will retest its electronic voting machines at the insistence of a group of former candidates who have questioned whether the machines worked properly in November.

Four months after the general election, Elections Supervisor Joseph Passarella said he would schedule a test on the machines in the next two weeks. The decision was made after the county received complaints from five unsuccessful North Penn school board candidates.

The test will involve reprograming the Sequoia Pacific Systems machines exactly as they were on Election Day, Passarella said. It will allow North Penn Proud, a political action committee run by the five Democrats, to see whether certain actions caused the machine to malfunction.

Two voters - one in Hatfield Township and one in Whitpain Township - complained of difficulties in voting.

In Hatfield, a woman told North Penn Proud that when she voted "no" in the November open-space referendum, the entire Republican ballot lighted up. In Whitpain Township, an activist who was experimenting with the machine said he had difficulty voting for a write-in candidate and the Democratic candidate in the local Board of Supervisors race.

"Our concerns are that the machines are not operating properly," said H. Bruce Gordon, a former North Penn school board member who was defeated in November. "We believe that the voters need to know that this issue is resolved, either pro or con, and the only way to do that is to test."

Gordon has not challenged the outcome of the election, which Republicans won handily.

But he said he was concerned with the integrity of the machines. He is a proponent of paper printouts that voters can see to verify their votes - a movement that is gaining momentum nationwide and that will be discussed during hearings in Philadelphia beginning tomorrow.

Gordon wants to be able to push various combinations of buttons to make sure the machines operate properly. The machines should be programmed with original election data so the same environment can be re-created, he said.

Passarella discounted Gordon's claims, noting that no election judge reported problems that day.

In Whitpain, Republican election judge John O'Hara and Democratic committeeman Rick Schwarz - who were both at the polls all day - said in interviews that they saw no problems with the machines.

Republican Jim Matthews, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said he favored testing to quiet the critics.

"The more we test, the better, and the greater likelihood that the fanatics will leave us alone," he said. "Let's test and test until it's obvious there's no Republican devil in the machine."

Gordon has consulted Rebecca Mercuri, a research fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a former Bryn Mawr professor, who studies electronic voting machines.

Mercuri said machine problems often go unreported and that the type of malfunction reported by Gordon is typical.

Although the election results were not in question, Mercuri said voters should have a formal process to address their complaints.

"These are the very, very real problems that we see constantly with these types of voting machines," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, one person being disenfranchised is bad."

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