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Pennsylvania: Activists work with Allegheny County on Voting Machine Evaluation Process PDF  | Print |  Email
By Pat Clark, The Center for Civic Participation and Everybody VOTE   
November 28, 2005
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) mandates that counties choose electronic voting machines by January 1, 2006, and that the voting technology “be accessible to individuals with disabilities in a way that provides the same opportunity for access and participation, including privacy and independence, as for other voters.” This is an important selection process that has to occur within an extremely short timeframe. The result of the decisions around these machines will affect voting for decades to come.

Allegheny County had originally intended to present its final decision without public input but was induced by local community activists, particularly those representing the disability community, to allow those with disabilities, as well as the general public, to inspect and test machines prior to the County’s decision.

So, on Thursday, November 17, 2005, in response to HAVA, Allegheny County hosted three sessions to test new voting machines. The HAVA committee members attended a private session (8:30-10:30 am); the ADA and community activists attended a 10:30am-12:30pm session; and the general public attended the 1:00 – 9:00 pm session. We were committed to ensuring that valid, reliable, consistent data was collected at these sessions so that the County factored public input into its decisions.

County officials referred to our group as the “ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and other community activists.” Paul O’Hanlon led our movement on behalf of the Disability Law Project. The other "community activists" include Richard King, of; Marybeth Kuznik of VotePA; Pat Clark of Center for Civic Participation and Everybody VOTE; Celeste Taylor of Pittsburghers For Open Government; Tim Stevens of B-PEP / Black Political Empowerment Project; Sue Broughton of the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh, Joni Rabinowitz of Just Harvest / Just Vote; and Rachel Freund of the Mental Health Association of Allegheny County. We teamed up with evaluative scientists Edmond Lopresti, Ph.D. and Julie Downs, Ph.D. to perform an informative, unbiased and accurate testing process.

Given the success of this process, we’ve spent time planning and documenting it so that other counties can replicate it. Knowing that other counties will have to select machines before the HAVA deadline of the beginning of January, we want to make this specific process readily available to voting rights activists, organizations, governments, and elected officials throughout Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

We developed 12 test teams, each composed of 5 people. Test teams included: people with vision impairments, people with limited use of different limbs, people with cognitive disabilities, seniors with no computer experience, and first time voters. We anticipated individuals from the same team arriving at different times throughout the two hour time slot. Upon arrival, team members were assigned a specific sequence in which to use the machines; this order was factored in when evaluating the survey responses. Team members also received a script specifying who to vote for so researchers could test for machine accuracy by matching scripts with ballot counts.

Thirty minutes before the session, Volunteers were provided with an overview of the process, including a summary sheet, voting scripts and the evaluation tool. The goal was to have informed and unbiased volunteers assisting with this process and providing support to testing teams. For example, volunteers assisted those with visual impairments to travel from machine to machine and also served as scribes to complete the survey.

To test which machines were the most Secure, Accurate, Re-Countable, and Accessible, our researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and from the University of Pittsburgh created a survey for the ADA and community activists session. We hoped the County would adopt and utilize this survey during the general public session. The County provided index-sized paper for citizens to write their thoughts about the machines and then place into a comments box. To our delight, many people were relieved that someone was collecting data scientifically and asked to complete our surveys instead of the County’s small feedback form.

Several dozen people attended the community activists session, 400 attended the general public session, and many completed our survey. Survey results will be published, along with a report template, as soon as they are compiled by our analysts.

• Work closely with County officials prior to the event. Get them to agree to utilize this survey (or an adapted one) and to factor the data into their decision. Ensure that the room is big enough for all the machines and people (our room was too small and made it difficult to access machines and to move around the room).

• To control for variables, insist that each company use the same ballot. Some companies used an Allegheny County General Election ballot, some used a primary ballot, and some created non-political ballots asking for favorite car and musical artist. One suggestion is to have a ballot a little shorter than the primary ballot and to use imaginary names and parties. This will aid in volunteer’s objectivity and in their ability to follow a voting script. Following a script enables researchers to test the accuracy of the machine by matching scripts to ballot counts.

• A further, immediate goal is to consolitate, publish and promote the detailed plan and tools for this public process on the CCP website, so that any activist, organization, government or election official wishing to conduct a similar review program may follow this simple and effective Pittsburgh model. Look for those materials here no later than 11/28/05.

Any community activist can - and should take the lead in ensuring that their local officials conduct a transparent, public and effective evaluation of voting machines needed to comply with HAVA requirements by January 1, 2006. We did it - you can too. Visit The Center for Civic Participation for more information and here to view our video.

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