For Immediate Release: February 28, 2006
Westmoreland County citizens responded strongly today to Secretary of State Pedro Cortés' recent memorandum that stated their court case has impeded the progress Pennsylvania counties are making toward buying new voting machines to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act by the May 16 primary election.
Ten Westmoreland voters filed a lawsuit last month along with state senator Jim Ferlo who represents part of the county, seeking to preserve the right to choose a voting system under the Pennsylvania Constitution and approve any change from lever machines to electronic voting by referendum. Earlier this month Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini ruled in favor of the citizens, but Westmoreland County and the Pennsylvania Department of State have appealed that decision to the State Supreme Court. In the meantime, Secretary Cortés' memorandum was sent to all county officials and appeared on Governor Ed Rendell's web site over the weekend.
As lead plaintiff in the suit, Mary Beth Kuznik expressed dismay that an honest effort made by citizens to preserve the rights of all Pennsylvanians under the state Constitution was being blamed for a delay in buying voting machines and a potential loss of Help America Vote Act funding.
According to Kuznik, no voting machines were certified by the Pennsylvania Department of State under HAVA until August 2005, and then there was only one available -- albeit a good one -- until mid-November. She said that information and leadership was lacking with counties being forced to rely on the vendors' biased information rather than hard facts about the machines. This has led many officials to make a choice based on price and promises rather than concrete information.
"The notion that our group of citizens somehow acted to disrupt HAVA is absurd," Kuznik said, "and I personally told Secretary Cortés' staff several times that it was already too late long before our suit was filed. I am an elected Inspector of Elections, a pollworker myself, and I know the training and logistics that will be involved to make the switch to a new system. To make the May deadline, machines should have been ordered in November or December at the latest, but the Department of State was still examining voting machines in January and acting like there was plenty of time."
In further developments, the federal Department of Justice involved itself in the matter when it sent a strongly worded letter to the State of Pennsylvania saying that all counties must be in compliance with the HAVA by the May 16 Primary Election. The move was seen by Kuznik and her group as a heavy handed tactic to force counties to buy unverifiable, paperless electronic voting machines.
Under HAVA, counties are required meet certain standards that are largely resulting in a move to electronic voting methods. The mandate leaves many voters concerned that the newer, largely untested computerized systems are prone to breakdowns, fraud, and potentially thousands or millions of lost or miscounted votes. Citizen groups and computer experts have called for equipping machines with the ability to produce a paper either marked or verified by the voter, and keeping the papers available in a locked ballot box to serve as the official record of the vote in case of audit, machine breakdown, or recount.
Kuznik said that her group and others are calling upon Secretary Cortés and Governor Rendell take the next step to make sure that votes are protected by pushing for hearings and ultimate passage of SB 977 / HB 2000.
SB 977 and its identical House version HB 2000 would provide that all voting systems in the state produce a paper record or ballot allowing voters to verify that their choices are being recorded as cast, with an audit of 5% of the precincts chosen at random in each election. The bills, proposed by Senator Joe Conti (R-Bucks) and Representative Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) have co-sponsorship of over one-fourth of their respective houses, but are delayed in the State Government committees and have been unable to move to either the public hearings called for by the Governor's Task Force on Election Reform, or to a floor vote in the General Assembly.