Philly vote recount illustrates problem with PA system

Posted 12/7/16

by Josh Mittledorf

I got a call Saturday from the Green Party’s Carl Romanelli, asking me to be an observer at the recount of ballots, scheduled this week at the Election Commission’s …

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Philly vote recount illustrates problem with PA system


by Josh Mittledorf

I got a call Saturday from the Green Party’s Carl Romanelli, asking me to be an observer at the recount of ballots, scheduled this week at the Election Commission’s Delaware Ave office.

I wondered, what is there to recount?   In Philadelphia, as in 50 of the state’s 67 counties, we vote on push-button machines that provide no paper record of individual ballots.  If the machines are programmed honestly and without error, then the vote count comes out flawlessly, automatically, instantly. But if there is a problem with the machine or its programming, there is no backup and no way to recover the lost vote.

This week’s recount is limited to the 3percent of mail-in and provisional ballots.  These votes are cast on paper, so the count is accountable.  They can be recounted.  The push-button machines – not so much. Some computer experts have pointed out that the problem is deeper than this.  There is no way to know if the equipment is working properly.  We are being asked to accept on faith this linchpin in the mechanism of our democracy.

For just this reason, most other states have opted for paper ballots.  Canada, England, France, Italy, and Australia all use paper ballots.  Germany “modernized” its voting system in the 2000s, but realized that the slick, computerized system was very fast and efficient, but easily corruptible.  The German people had no confidence in computerized voting, and went back to paper ballots in 2009.

Pennsylvania has one of the least verifiable voting systems in the nation. Voters in Philadelphia County should demand a new/old system for counting our votes, one that can offer the possibility of recounts and double checks. At the end of the day, this is the only way we can have confidence that our votes are being counted correctly.

Is there any evidence that there is a problem with the present system in America?  Well, yes there is.  The Chestnut Hill Local is telling us something the New York Times and NPR won’t cover. The stories and the data are readily available on the Internet for those with patience to explore it -- but that’s a story for another day.

I did attend the recount Sunday, limited to the small number of paper mail-in ballots, and provisional ballots that had been certified as valid.  These votes had been counted once by hand over the last three weeks, resulting in 22,000 more votes for Clinton, closing ⅓ of the statewide gap that separates her count from Trump’s.

Most of the provisional ballots were not counted, however. We don’t know how many, and don’t know why they were rejected. Philadelphia’s Election Commissioners maintain that this is not information they are required to share with us. The Green Party disagrees, and has petitioned Pennsylvania courts to get this information, and to review the process by which so many ballots were discounted.

Paper ballots are not a guarantee of the integrity of the election process. There is a venerable tradition of ballot-box stuffing, indulged by both party machines, stealing one vote at a time since the birth of our Republic. But since the Help America Vote Act of 2002, vote counting equipment has been computerized across the country, and it is now possible to steal votes wholesale, thousands of votes at a time with a few mouse clicks.  This is the danger of automated vote counts.

Paper ballots are a significant deterrent to corruption. Paper is a good start. Where paper ballots are counted by Op-Scan equipment -- computerized reading machines -- there is a necessity to check on the Op-Scan machines, because these are just as easily corrupted as the push-button machines.  “Trust, but verify,” as President Reagan was fond of saying.

The Carter Center monitors elections in democracies around the world, and reports on the integrity of their process. Why not here at home, in the US?  Former President Jimmy Carter has said that the election system in America is not sufficiently open to scrutiny to make monitoring possible. He has called our democratic system has become an oligarchy. Unlike every other advanced democracy in the World, the U.S. has a privatized system for counting votes that is so opaque, so secretive, that there is really no way to check up on it.

“They just can't get hacked. They can’t.” Election Commmissioner Lisa Deeley was quoted in the Inquirer on Saturday.  At least since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have been telling us not to trust our government.  But never doubt that the election is counted accurately and honestly. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Computational biologist Josh Mitteldorf has lived in Mt Airy since 1982. His book, “Cracking the Aging Code,” came out this past summer, from Flatiron Press. His insights on health and longevity appear at and