W.Pa. officials ready to tackle voting issues
The long lines that stretched outside voting precincts four years ago are expected to return on Tuesday.
Westmoreland County Election Bureau Director Jim Montini said voting is expected to be heavy, comparable with the 2008 turnout when about 72 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the presidential election.
“We're asking voters to be patient. There will be lines,” Montini said.
Montini said he expects 70 percent to 75 percent of the county's 238,006 registered voters to turn out to the polls, spurred on by the showdown between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Interest in this year's election has been on pace with four years ago.
Westmoreland County distributed more than 9,300 absentee ballot applications this year and expects about 90 percent of those to be returned.
Four years ago, 9,200 absentee ballots were counted, Montini said.
To accommodate the anticipated turnout, the county will operate a hot line to assist poll workers with voter registration questions and a separate phone line for technical support for computerized voting machines.
The county scuttled a plan to hire additional poll workers when implementation of the state's voter identification law was delayed.
Voters will be asked to show a photo identification card at the polls, but those without it will still be able to cast ballots.
While turnout is expected to be heavy in Westmoreland, Fayette County Election Bureau Director Larry Blosser said he does not believe the number of voters there will top 2008 figures.
Turnout in 2008 was between 50 percent and 59 percent, Blosser said.
“I'm figuring turnout will not be that high. It will be a little less than last time for the presidential race,” Blosser said.
Dozens of lawyers will be stationed throughout Western Pennsylvania to field complaints of election fraud and to answer questions about voting rights.
Others, inside a command center in Reed Smith's Pittsburgh offices, will dispatch mobile counterparts to areas where a need arises. In all, more than 1,000 volunteers will be on call in Pennsylvania.
“The bottom line is that we want to make sure that everyone who is registered to vote and can cast a ballot is able to do so,” said Kim Watterson, a partner at Reed Smith who is helping coordinate the effort with lawyers, local nonprofits, the American Civil Liberties Union, Duquesne University, the University of Pittsburgh and Election Protection, a nationwide nonprofit.
The most common problems in Allegheny County include people leaving campaign literature inside polling sites, faulty voting machines and polling places that open late, said Sara Rose, a lawyer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“Most things are not done purposefully,” Rose said. “It's more a lack of communication.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun E. Sweeney and a team of lawyers at the direction of U.S. Attorney David Hickton will be on duty to handle any problems. Special agents from the FBI will be available to receive allegations of election fraud and other abuses.
“Every citizen must be able to vote without interference or discrimination and to have their vote counted,” Hickton said. “The Department of Justice will act promptly and aggressively to protect the integrity of the election process.”
Concerns about voter fraud appear to be arising earlier than usual this year, likely because of the hotly contested presidential race.
People in Florida and Virginia — two states where polls show President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney neck-and-neck — have gotten phone calls telling them they can vote by phone. In Florida, some voters are receiving bogus letters — purportedly signed by local election supervisors — questioning their citizenship and eligibility to vote.
In Pennsylvania, the state's new voter ID law could confuse voters or poll workers who are unfamiliar with it.
“There was a lot of back and forth, so it might be unclear to people what the law actually is this year,” Rose said.
Adam Brandolph, a staff writer for Trib Total Media, contributed. Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.