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Outdated voting machines must go

| Sunday, May 1, 2005

Time is running out for election officials nationwide to get rid of lever and other outdated voting machines by 2006 to meet new federal guidelines.

The guidelines will not be released until later this summer, leaving little time for election officials to order and implement new systems before next year's primaries.

"We were told by mid-August there should be a pricing list for counties to choose what (type of voting system) to buy," Allegheny County elections director Mark Wolosik said. "It's a difficult (timetable)."

After the Florida recount battle in the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 and allotted nearly $3.4 billion for the states to comply with new regulations by January.

The federal guidelines outlaw lever voting machines, such as those used in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.

Allegheny County has nearly 2,800 lever voting machines that might cost anywhere from $12 million to $18 million to replace, Wolosik said. Westmoreland County has almost 700 lever machines.

Paula T. Pedicone, Westmoreland County elections director, said county officials are looking at touch screen voting machines. "The cost will depend on what we pick," she said.

While voters are accustomed to lever machines, they won't have a hard time adjusting, she said.

Administrative delays, including a delay by Congress in funding the newly created Election Assistance Commission, have tightened timetables across the country as local officials fret about meeting the 2006 deadline.

County and state officials across the country must decide between picking a machine now and finding out later whether it meets new rules or face the possibility of losing federal funding if the new systems are not implemented in time, said Duke University doctoral candidate Justin Moore, a member of the committee that will recommend new federal voting guidelines.

"Congress really put the cart before the horse," Moore said. "The new rules should have been passed yesterday -- last week -- to meet this deadline. Every day that passes, more pressure mounts to get this done in time."

Moore called the 2002 standards "horrible" and estimated that the current guidelines allow electronic machines to fail 10 percent of the time.

Voting machine manufacturers will need almost six months to implement the new requirements into their software and get the machines tested and federally accredited, Moore said. If the rules came out today, that would mean machines that meet the guidelines would not be available for purchase until late October.

The Election Assistance Commission has threatened to notify the Justice Department of any states not in compliance with the law. The federal government then could deny additional funding or sue to recover spent funds.

Pennsylvania received about $135 million from Help America Vote. Counties can receive up to $8,000 per precinct for new machines and additional money available for poll worker training and voter education, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

State Department spokesman Brian McDonald downplayed any coming crisis. He pointed out that the more stringent recommendations "may be a fairly good idea" but will not be mandatory.

"We're not panicking," he said.

But officials of counties in Western Pennsylvania are thinking twice about purchasing electronic touch screen voting systems in light of recent problems. Beaver, Mercer and Greene counties had been using the touch screen, electronic UniLect Patriot machines before the state decertified the machines on April 7 because they failed a test for recording and counting votes. The State Department refused Friday to lift its ban on the machines.

The three counties had to scramble to implement a different system for the May 17 primary. Those counties will use optical scan paper ballots, in which voters mark their choices like students do a standardized test.

"It's a big problem," said Butler County elections director Regis Young. "We've been pushed back to almost impossible deadlines. Right now, it's a waiting game. We've been looking at some different systems, but we have to wait to see what the new rules will be."

Vendors also are keeping a close watch on the new guidelines, but many already are filling orders.

"Certainly, if everyone waits for the new guidelines, it's a concern," said Michelle Shafer, spokeswoman for Hart InterCivic, a supplier of touch screen voting machines. "We're not so much worried about meeting demand. We're worried that the counties can't deploy the system in time.

"You could have a brand new system, but it still takes time for voter education, training the poll workers and programming the ballots."

In 2002, the state of Georgia switched all its 22,000 precincts to electronic touch screen voting machines.

Critics of electronic touch screen voting contend that if the machine fails, there is no paper trail for a recount, although lever machines also do not leave a paper trail.

"If an optiscan fails, poll workers can still count the ballots by hand," Moore said.

Lever fever

County Precincts System
Allegheny 1,314 Lever
Westmoreland 306 Lever
Butler 82 Punch card
Beaver 129 Optical scan
Armstrong 74 Punch card
Washington 184 Punch card

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