Wed, Feb. 15, 2006
The state will ask the courts to ease a ruling requiring a public vote on new vote machines.
By JENNIFER LEARN-ANDES firstname.lastname@example.org
“The decision, if not promptly reversed, puts at risk over $20 million in funds to replace lever machines in 24 counties.”
Allison Hrestak Department of State spokeswoman
The state got counties into the voting machine predicament, so now counties are looking for the state to get them out of what could be a costly bind.
As far back as 2003, state officials had been telling counties that voter referendums would not be necessary to switch from lever machines to electronic machines because the federal mandate to make the change superseded state law.
So county officials felt like they were slapped with a brick Monday when a commonwealth court judge ruled otherwise, saying the state constitution requires voters to approve any changes to voting systems.
The Department of State plans to file paperwork urging commonwealth court to grant an exception to the ruling. If that fails, the state will appeal to the Supreme Court, seeking an expedient review, said state department spokeswoman Allison Hrestak.
The ruling could jeopardize millions of dollars in federal funding earmarked to help Luzerne and 23 other Pennsylvania counties purchase electronic voting machines.
Hrestak said it’s premature to criticize the state for its stance.
“The cases and decisions will speak for themselves,” Hrestak said.
If an appeal is necessary, the state would hope the Supreme Court “will appreciate the gravity of the situation,” Hrestak said.
“The decision, if not promptly reversed, puts at risk over $20 million in funds to replace lever machines in 24 counties,” Hrestak said, adding that the state will present options to counties as soon as the state has more information.
The U.S. Department of Justice has threatened to withhold funding and levy penalties against governments that don’t have machines in place by the spring primary to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act.
Dan Seligson, editor of the national election reform tracking entity known as electionline.org, said it’s looking like at least nine states, maybe more, won’t be compliant in time for primary elections in 2006. Nobody knows what enforcement to expect because states such as New York have been threatened with penalties but received none to date, he said.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Seligson said.
Department of Justice spokesman Eric Holland wouldn’t comment on what specific actions might be taken.
“We are in communication with various governments and we are evaluating each individual situation. At the end, we’ll determine what actions should be taken, if any,” Holland said.
Luzerne County minority Commissioner Stephen A. Urban said he contacted the justice department Tuesday, stressing that the county shouldn’t be penalized or lose funding because commissioners want to follow both state and federal laws.
Until judges resolve the matter, county election officials say they’re essentially in limbo, wondering what type of machines they’ll use in the May 16 primary and how they’ll prepare voters and election workers. Another question: What if a referendum is held and voters don’t want to switch from lever machines?
Luzerne County Election Bureau Director Leonard Piazza said the county’s lever machines can still be deployed for May 16. The county is still drafting a contract to purchase the new electronic ones, so they’re not locked in yet.
Piazza expressed concern about training election workers and voters on a system that might not be used.
Lackawanna County commissioners had planned to select a machine Tuesday but held off until 5 p.m. today to digest the commonwealth ruling, said the county’s voter education director Cathy Hardaway. She had volunteers lined up to help the public learn how to use the new electronic machines.
“We have things geared up and ready to go. This is a letdown,” Hardaway said.
Erie County elections director Doug Smith said he will prepare both the lever and electronic machines.
“It’s troubling to say the least. This places a giant question mark on the spring election,” Smith said.
Kenneth Leffler, head of Carbon County’s election bureau, said he’s getting “jittery” because the appeals process will cut into the three months he has to set up machines, train workers and show voters how to use them. He also doubts a referendum could be pulled together by May.
Regardless of whether they want machines or not, state residents should be pleased with the ruling because the referendum was designed to make sure they’re OK with a change in how they vote, said Charles A. Pascal Jr., the attorney who won the commonwealth court ruling on behalf of 11 Westmoreland County residents.
“The purpose of these protections is to make sure the voters have confidence in machinery being used to collect and tabulate their votes,” Pascal said. “If people want to use electronic machines, they’ll indicate they’re confident in them by voting for them. HAVA was supposed to increase voter confidence.”
Jennifer Learn-Andes, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 831-7333.
© 2006 Times Leader and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
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