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Officials scramble to cover cost of new voting machines

| Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 3:17 a.m.

Westmoreland County will have to foot more than half the bill for new, computerized voting machines mandated by federal law, county officials say.

To help cover some costs, however, county commissioners approved applications Thursday for grant funding under the federal Help America Vote Act.

The act is a federal effort to correct voting problems encountered in Florida during the November 2000 presidential election.

The federal program is being administered at the state level by the Pennsylvania Department of State, which will funnel funds to the counties.

Commissioners approved three grant applications at yesterday's meeting: one for $976,819 to replace the lever voting machines; another for $57,364 to improve polling place accessibility for people with disabilities; and a third for $40,393 for voter education and election worker training.

County solicitor R. Mark Gesalman said the amounts the county is applying for are provided to officials by the state.

He said the state based the amount given to each county on its own federal allocation and the needs of the local areas.

"It's definitely short of the number of voting machines we project we'll need," Gesalman said.

The county currently has 738 lever machines, but only 603 of them were used in the last election.

Gesalman said the county projects it will need 620 computer voting machines. Depending on the type of machine purchased, price tags range from $3,500 to $5,500 each, he said.

The money the state allotted would pay for only 279 of the least-expensive models or 177 of the priciest versions.

To purchase all 620, the county would need at least $2.2 million.

"It's still going to be a burden on local communities," Commissioner Tom Balya said.

Balya added that while the lever machines are 40 years old, they haven't been the subject of many voting controversies. But he pointed out that the touch-screen machines caused some difficulties last year.

"It raised a red flag to us that the technology has not been completely effective," Balya said.

He added that some proceeds from a 2003 bond issue could cover the additional expense incurred to purchase the new machines.

But Brian McDonald, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said counties are being given $8,000 per precinct to pay for the new voting machines, translating to $2.4 million to Westmoreland County.

He said the federal money should pay for all the needed voting machines as long as counties stick with vendors approved by the state.

McDonald said he wasn't sure how Westmoreland County officials arrived at the $976,000 figure, but he added that if the numbers are not correct when the grant applications are sent in, the state will revise them.

Gesalman said everything county officials were told indicates that federal funding will not cover the entire cost.

"If somebody is saying otherwise, we'd be delighted to take them up on that," he said.

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