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Voter Story: Battling Adminsitrative Incompetence And Technical Failure At The Polls

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There will be a lot going on in Pennsylvania tomorrow with the death match between Obama and Clinton coming down to the wire. A huge turnout and lots of new voters are expected which is always worrisome in large states like PA with lots of different municipalities (the Pittsburgh area has the largest number of unique municipalities in one county, Alleghany, in the country) all with their own machinery and rules. There will be a lot of commentary on who voted for whom, but there is another, smaller story worth watching, and that is what happens to the machinery tomorrow.

The folks at Why Tuesday have been provided a heads up that several Pennsylvania counties are using Sequoia Voting Systems electronic voting machine. These are the same machines that failed dramatically in the New Jersey primary on Super Tuesday in February. The vulnerabilities of these machines have been well publicized by computer science professors Ed Felton and Andrew Appel at Princeton. Appel bought five used Sequoia machines last year at a government auction to explore their guts. Wired Magazine has an account of what Appel learned once he had thoroughly explored the Sequoia machines:

Appel says he opened the machines with a key that came with them, and was able to easily access the machines’ motherboards and memory chips to swap them out. But even without the key, a student of his was able to pick the lock in seven seconds. He says that even seals wouldn’t thwart a hacker because they’re easily counterfeited, and many counties fail to use and track them properly — as evidenced by recent reports out of Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

But none of this is really news, is it? We’ve come to expect human error coupled with crummy machines on Election Day. But, here’s the real story for tomorrow, Voter Story.

I’ve been watching voter hotline efforts mature and scale over the past few years. The idea behind Voter Story is that rather than rely on news reports or even blogs about what’s happening on Election Day at the polls, voters can call comment using a form on Voter Story (on its website or through its widgets that are freely distributed). Partners groups working to public Voter Story include VoterAction, Committee of Seventy, NAACP Voter Fund and the National Lawyers Committee for Election Protection.

Rob Stuart, the brains behind Voter Story, also told me that he is working with the League of Women Voters of PA to get the word out about Voter Story.

Voter Story is important on two levels. Local voter assistance organizations will be using the data in real time to pinpoint problems across the state and make state officials aware of them as well as help individuals access the ballot. After the election, geeks like me will be able to use the data to get a broader, data-based picture of what the problems areas were across the state.

We can hope that tomorrow’s vote runs smoothly across Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, there are systemic reasons why that won’t happen. Let’s read about the story as it unfolds in real time at Voter Story.