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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

TOUCH SCREEN VOTING IN PHILADELPHIA (from my STAR column, November 10, 2010)

Change, say the seers, can be a good thing, but last week when I voted at my local firehouse, and then went into Center City for a Jury Duty call, I was reminded of change that’s not so good.

In 2001, the City of Philadelphia replaced its mechanical-lever voting machines with a touch-screen electronic voting system. The new 18.5 million dollar system was actually 15 years old when it was implemented. New York City considered adopting the same electronic system but then backed out after spending 17 million and 7 years evaluating this touch screen system. New York City took its time, and only adopted the newest and safest voting booth technology-- the optical scanning method-- in September. Optical scanning is rapidly becoming the norm throughout the country.

Philadelphia’s adoption of the touch-screen system was not without controversy. Computer scientists maintained that while the new machines were the most accurate devices on the market, they left no auditable paper trail for those rare occasions when a recount is necessary.
Even computer scientist Peter G. Neumann (SRI International) weighed in and said that with touch screen systems there is “absolutely no assurance that your vote is recorded in the way you intended it.”

That’s Orwellian if you ask me.

When I stepped into the touch-screen voting booth at the Aramingo Avenue firehouse last week, I found myself longing for the old 900 pound lever booths that not only had real curtains on them but which had a lever you could pull when you wanted your vote registered. Pulling the lever (which made a reassuring sound) not only registered your vote, it opened the booth curtain and left it open for the next voter. With the touch-screen booths, where the flimsy curtain recalls a shower stall more than a voting booth, you have to duck under the curtain before and after voting.

Once inside, you touch the name of the candidate you want to vote for, after which a light appears.

If a light appears, that is….

City and state-wide ballot questions on the touch-screen booths have been reduced in print size, making them almost impossible to read. This spells disaster for the unprepared voter who hasn’t read the ballot questions beforehand.

Then there’s the awkward positioning of the green “vote” button at the bottom of the booth. This placement is something first time voters might have trouble finding. The lever on the old machines was front and center. You couldn’t miss it because you couldn’t leave the booth unless you pulled it!

Some voters—like a friend in the neighborhood—reported difficulties with the touch-screen lights. When his screen didn’t light up, he had to call for help. Although the error was corrected, he says he wishes the city never got rid of the old machines.

People are always fixing and improving things that don’t need fixing or improving.

Take jury duty, for instance. I’ve been called for jury duty maybe seven times in my life. Out of the seven I’ve been selected only once, and then it was as an alternate. The other times I was dismissed because I confessed to being the victim of crime or that I worked as a journalist. Most lawyers do not like journalists. They don’t want somebody who writes for newspapers in the jury box. I don’t know why this frightens lawyers, but it does. This is why I am never bothered when I receive a jury duty summons in the mail.

“Once I tell them what I do for a living, I’m out the door,” I tell friends. I say this with some regret because I’d love to serve on a jury.

When I reported for jury duty last week (I was not picked), I noticed that the city no longer offers free soft pretzels for potential jurors. This may seem like an unimportant change. In fact, it may seem down right silly to even call attention to, but when you add up all the little lost things in life—a voting booth with a real curtain instead of a shower curtain that doesn’t part; a touch tone screen that sometimes goes on the blink; and now a jury pool room minus free soft pretzels from a grateful court system-- you begin to think that, little by little, all the small but thoughtful courtesies in life are being done away with.

What’s next on the chopping block is anybody’s guess.

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