Today I went as an independent observer to inspect and trial the voting machines for Pennsylvania. I've included my photos below.
It really was quite an experience. I had a technician who showed me around the machines and the installation with a representative from Kerry-Edwards and a senior campaign lawyer of Bush-Cheney. We inspected a random selection of machines and checked that the (initially fairly complicated) system of voting worked. I must admit to being fairly impressed with the system, having arrived very sceptical about its advantages over the simple British paper and pencil! I think I am now 'persuadable' about the advantage of being able to collate results instantaneously from machines rather than implacably opposed.
Most interesting, however, was interacting with the two campaigns: the Bush team, harsh young men in suits and dark, smart overcoats and the Kerry team, an assortment of pleasant looking but scruffy middle-aged folks who seemed decidedly amateur. At the end of the exercise I was part of a very aggressive 'discussion' (for want of a more appropriate word!) between the two camps about provisional voting papers and the justifications for tactics designed to result in a higher proportion of their voters getting to the ballot box. At the same time, there were representatives of both campaigns being interviewed in the background by television news.
The only part problem we identified, apart from a malfunction with one of the machines, was the status of Ralph Nader. He was taken off the ballot in Pennsylvania last week, at a point when it was too late to reprint the ballot papers (which appear positioned over the buttons which you have to press on the machine for it to register your vote). As a result a white 'address label' had been placed over Nader's name on each machine. Unfortunately you could still make out his name through the label and if you looked at where you were meant to press to vote for him and pressed there the machine would still register it as a Nader vote but it would be ignored as null and void. It was clear what the situation was, but still seemed decidedly amateur.
Well, ten minutes before we left we found out that the Democrats had won a court hearing to have a second label placed over the name. This has caused great problems though because the machines were due to be security-sealed and taken out for the first deliveries to polling stations at 1pm today. The workers said it would take three days to place labels on all the machines and get them ready for the ten day period of distribution. The word on the ground was that it was an attempt by the Democrats to spoil the election procedure by delaying it so that, fearful of losing Pennsylvania as the second largest key state in the electoral college, if things didn't go their way they had an avenue to challenge the result given its likely close result.
As armies of lawyers are deployed all over the country I can't help but feel this is the case with both sides. They know that winning two of the big three states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania will guarantee the Presidency and they know that all three are on a knife-edge. As a result they are positioning themselves now so that if they don't edge the popular vote there theyhave grounds for a second shot in the courts. If the polls are correct with regards to how close this race is, then, from what I've seen, I'm sure the most litigated election in US history will be decided in the courts again.
How exciting to be on one of their legal teams... let us hope that democracy prevails.
EDIT: A diligent reader has quite correctly pointed out Pennsylvania isn't the second largest state in the electoral college. It is the second largest of the swing states. Sorry for such a glaring inaccuracy!!