County faces voting machine dilemma
By P.j. Reilly
Lancaster Intelligencer Journal
Published: Nov 02, 2005 6:58 AM EST
LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - Lancaster County must decide by the end of the year which new voting machine it plans to buy if it's to qualify for $1.8 million in federal funding.
Dick Shellenberger, chairman of the Lancaster County commissioners, succinctly summed up the county's position on the purchase of new voting machines.
"The gun is to the head," Shellenberger said Tuesday. "We can't do nothing."
Under the terms of the 2002 Help America to Vote Act, all voting machines in the county must be accessible to the handicapped and must be able to manually audit returns in time for the May 2006 primary election.
The county's 430 antiquated voting machines have neither capability, which means the county must buy an entire fleet of new electronic voting machines.
To receive $1.8 million in federal funding for the machines, the county must decide before the end of the year which ones it intends to buy. According to the prices of four different machines the county tested last month, the total cost could range from $2.7 million to $4.5 million.
Mary Stehman, chief clerk of the county's election board, said only one of the 13 vendors approved by the state to sell voting machines here has earned the required certification from the Pennsylvania Department of State.
"We've been doing our research on these machines since about 2000," Stehman said. "The problem has been in having vendors get the certification for their machines from the Department of State.
"We can only buy machines that are certified."
County officials said they are not sure if they can make an informed decision that's in the best interest of taxpayers and voters by the end of the year.
If they don't make a decision, county officials will lose the federal funding. And they can't use the same machines they've been using in next spring's primary because that would be a violation of federal law.
"This is a tight situation, and it's very serious," Shellenberger said.
Last month, the county voter registration office sponsored public demonstrations of four electronic voting machines it is considering buying. None were certified, although Stehman said they all were in the process of earning their certifications.
The machine preferred by most of the 630 people who participated in the demonstrations and filled out surveys was rejected for certification by the state two days after the county's demonstration.
"This is incredible," Commissioner Molly Henderson said. "Talk about coming down to the wire."
Stehman said her office is not prepared at this time to recommend a machine for purchase by the county.
She said she will keep apprised of certifications made by the Department of State and study those machines during the coming weeks.
Don Elliott, the county's chief administrative officer, said he is worried that if there aren't a lot of machines certified before the end of the year, the county could end up paying dearly for new equipment.
"This is simple economics," he said. "It's a seller's market."