The 2010 primary election season is in full swing.  As in every election cycle, there are a number of extremely close races, with recounts looming for some.  So far this year, state-mandated automatic recounts are likely for the Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, and for the Republican primary for Ohio’s 18th U.S. Congressional District.  In Oregon, a recount is possible in the statewide race for superintendent of schools. Some of 2010’s recounts will include the hand-to-eye examination of actual ballots; for example, Oregon mandates that recounts be 100% hand-counted.  But too many “recounts” this year will depend upon the correct functioning of computer software or firmware.  We believe that this state of affairs is not tenable.  When a state does not provide every voter with a reliable, physical ballot showing his or her intent, or does not conduct computer-independent recounts of those ballots, then an effective recount –  a process that should provide the strongest possible evidence of the intent of the electorate – is not possible.

Verified Voting Foundation called attention to this fact over five years ago in our  Summary of the Problem With Electronic Voting.  Johns Hopkins computer scientist Avi Rubin called eloquently called recounts of paperless DREs “print and count,” because all the votes are stored in computer memory.  The Association for Computing Machinery’s official statement on electronic voting reads (emphasis added):

In addition, voting systems should enable each voter to inspect a physical (e.g., paper) record to verify that his or her vote has been accurately cast and to serve as an independent check on the result produced and stored by the system. Making those records permanent (i.e., not based solely in computer memory) provides a means by which an accurate recount may be conducted.

Yet Pennsylvania will likely spend over $500,000 in state funds to recount an election that cannot be recounted, just as it did for an election for a Superior Court judgeship last year.   An automatic recount law is sensible if there are ballots to recount.  With Pennsylvania’s current voting machines, though, $1 million of state funds – money that could have gone toward the replacement of  un-recountable voting systems – will simply be wasted.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell should use the teachable moment to start his state moving toward verifiable voting.  The timing could not be better.  With Secretary of State Pedro Cortes departing to take a job with Internet voting vendor Everyone Counts, Rendell has the opportunity to appoint a Secretary who will be responsible and proactive, and end the era of unverifiable voting in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  A state that is in many ways the very birthplace of American democracy deserves no less.