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Could election snafu strike Pa.?
Poll watchers worry about a fiasco like the one that hit Florida in 2000
Sunday, October 3, 2004

As George W. Bush and John Kerry gird for what could be a nail-biter in Pennsylvania, state and local officials are under pressure to ensure the votes are counted properly and without the controversies that jolted Florida four years ago.

“If the scenario that happened in Florida in 2000 happened in Pennsylvania, it would have been far worse,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause/Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has no system for an automatic statewide recount in close races and no legally binding standards for what constitutes a valid vote on a disputed ballot. Lawmakers are seriously considering bills for both, but they will have to hustle to approve them before the Nov. 2 election.

And as the election nears, some local officials are fretting about getting ballots printed and mailed to absentee voters while a legal battle rages over whether Ralph Nader should be on the Pennsylvania ballot.

For their part, the presidential campaigns are preparing for the worst by forming large teams of lawyers to fan out across the state in case voting problems arise.

Recent polls show a tight, seesaw race between Bush and Kerry for Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes. A poll released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University showed Kerry leading 49 to 46 among likely voters, while a Sept. 16 Quinnipiac poll showed Bush leading 49 to 48 percent.

Without an automatic recount, a candidate who wants one would be forced into a cumbersome and costly process of requesting recounts in each county. Without standards, disputes could arise over the hanging and dimpled chads seen on Florida’s punch-card ballots in 2000.

Pennsylvania has a mish-mash of voting systems, with punch cards in 11 of 67 counties, according to the Department of State. York and 23 other counties have levered machines; Adams and 23 others use paper ballots read by a scanner; and eight counties have electronic machines.

Rendell, recounts and the law

Gov. Ed Rendell is pushing the plan for an automatic recount in statewide races where the margin of victory is 0.5 percent or less. Currently, a candidate who wants a statewide recount would have to request it at every county’s Common Pleas Court and pay $50 for each of 9,412 precincts in the state, for a total of nearly $500,000.

In recent elections, 0.5 percent of presidential votes in Pennsylvania would have been about 25,000 votes. Approximately five million votes are traditionally cast for president here.

“What the governor doesn’t want to happen is to become the next Florida, where errors and questions about votes disenfranchised voters,” said Rendell spokeswoman Kate Philips.

Several local lawmakers like the idea.

Rep. Steven Nickol, R-Hanover, said a law that spells out how close a race must be to qualify for a recount “irons the politics out of it.”

But getting it signed into law in time for this year’s elections is “the central problem,” Nickol said. “Twenty-twenty hindsight is always perfect, but this should have been something that was dealt with before the summer break.“

Rep. Bruce Smith, R-Dillsburg, also likes the notion. But when asked if there’s time to enact it he said, “I sincerely doubt it.”

The House has six voting days scheduled before the election and the Senate has five. Philips said it’s not too late to get the recount plan enacted, because it only affects statewide races and “there’s not much work to be done to enable it.”

Sen. Charles Lemmond, R-Luzerne, sponsored the bill to establish standards for valid votes, a bill that cleared the Senate unanimously last week and heads to the House. The bill would give the force of law to a 47-page list of standards created last year by the Department of State’s Voting Standards Development Board.

The standards list many potentially confusing scenarios for each type of ballot and declare whether that type of vote should be considered invalid.

A hanging chad, for instance, is defined as valid if “two or more corners are broken or separated from the card.” A vote on a paper ballot is invalid if it “has any mark in the target area that partially extends into another target area.”

John Scott, York County director of elections and voter registration, said the standards are “excellent.“

But, he added, “It would be nice if they carried the weight of state law.”

But it is unclear if they will pass before Nov. 2. Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said he was not aware of any plans to move the bill quickly.

The Nader delay

Meanwhile, Commonwealth Court is in the midst of deciding whether Nader belongs on the Pennsylvania ballot — a case that is creating anxiety for some local elections officials.

Adams County elections director Monica Dutko is worried that Nader’s status won’t be decided in time for them to print ballots by the legal deadline of Oct. 19. Commonwealth Court held a series of statewide hearings last week on a Democratic challenge to 85 percent of Nader’s 47,000 nominating petitions, but Dutko fears appeals will drag the case out.

“We’re all just waiting patiently, and people are starting to call and say, ‘Where’s my absentee ballot,’” Dutko said.

Adams County has already mailed out about 230 absentee ballots to military voters, and Nader is on those, Dutko said. Once an official ballot is ready, it will be mailed to those military voters and to other voters who requested an absentee ballot, Dutko said.

In York County, about 1,000 absentee ballots have been mailed to military and overseas voters and most have Nader on them, Scott said.

Scott estimated that 200 absentee ballots don’t have Nader listed because they were mailed after an earlier decision from Commonwealth Court striking Nader from the ballot. That decision on a dispute over Nader’s independent status was overturned by the state Supreme Court, and Scott said another ballot will be mailed out when the case over his petitions is decided.

Both local elections chiefs say they are confident their voting technology will work well on Election Day.

Though York County’s levered machines are scheduled to be phased out in 2006 because they no longer meet federal guidelines, Scott described them as “workhorses.”

In Adams, the scanners that read the paper ballots are also scheduled to be replaced by 2006. County commissioners voted last month to apply for more than $500,000 in federal funds and expect to purchase two scanners for each of the county’s roughly 50 precincts in two years. The new scanners will count ballots faster and detect certain errors, such as a vote for too many candidates, so that a voter has the option of correcting it.

Adams’ current scanners, which count the ballots at the county courthouse, “have never let us down yet,” Dutko said.

Still, no matter how confident elections officials are, more than a thousand lawyers are expected to monitor the election for the two campaigns and be ready for a post-election squabble.

Democrats alone plan to have more than 1,000 lawyers statewide, with at least one in every county, said Sherry A. Swirsky, lead attorney for the Democrats.

The Bush camp is also planning to have at least one attorney in every county, but campaign spokesman Mark Pfeifle would not say how many they hope to have statewide. He said the Bush campaign is putting a great emphasis on grass-roots turnout efforts to avoid a close race, but is also “planning for a close election if it happens.”

A top concern for the Democrats is disenfranchisement of Latino voters in cities such as York, Swirsky said. They are seeking at least one bilingual attorney in counties with large Latino populations, she said.

“And we will be prepared,” Swirsky said, “as I know our opponents will be.”

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