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Mercer County's election boss quits: Incompetence charges forcing re-evaluation
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. By Paula Reed Ward. December 09, 2004

Amid allegations of mismanagement and incompetence in the Nov. 2 general election, Mercer County's director of voter registration and elections will quit at the end of the year.

James Bennington, who has held the position for six years, submitted his resignation Nov. 19. The county commissioners are expected to accept it at their meeting today and begin discussions on hiring a new director.

They also will likely address whether the position should be full- or part-time. When Bennington started, the job was full-time, but it was changed to part-time a couple of years ago.

Bennington did not return phone calls seeking comment.

His office has been at the center of controversy in Mercer County since Election Day. There were so many complaints from voters that the county commissioners have appointed an eight-person committee to review what happened and report back to them by Feb. 1 on how to avoid similar problems in the future.

Among the complaints being investigated are electronic voting machines breaking down; a lack of paper ballots to make up for the broken machines; electronic machines not registering votes; some paper ballots missing candidates' names; and poll workers making people sign their paper ballots.

"We lost a great deal of voter confidence because of many of our failures in this election," said commission Chairman Brian Beader.

There are 100 precincts in Mercer County and a total of 76,073 registered voters.

Dan Harkless was voter No. 24 at his precinct in Farrell. When he tried to vote, the electronic touch screen was not properly recording his choice. Harkless was moved to a second machine which functioned the same way.

He would touch the name of the candidate he wanted, and it would highlight as if it was recording the vote, but when Harkless took his finger away, the highlight would come off, and nothing was registered.

The poll workers called the elections office to get someone out to repair the machines, but when that took too long, they passed out paper ballots to the 20 or so people already in line.

Voters were asked to put their names on the ballots, Harkless said.

Most of the reported problems were in 12 precincts in the county's southwest region. Coincidentally, all of those precincts have a Democratic majority.

As of this past spring, Bennington was registered Republican, but Michael Coulter, a Grove City College professor and the chairman of the review committee, doesn't believe any of the errors were purposeful.

At its first formal meeting on Monday, the election review committee asked to speak to Bennington, who spent about 90 minutes answering questions.

He admitted programming some of the computers incorrectly, Coulter said, and failing to adequately test the machines.

One of the most significant voting problems found in the county, Beader said, was the recorded undervote, which is when the number of votes cast is lower than the number of people who voted. Across Mercer County, there was a 7.29 percent undervote.

Typically an undervote of even 2 percent leads to candidate challenges, Coulter said.

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