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Counties to rent vote-scanning machines

By Brian C. Rittmeyer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Three Western Pennsylvania counties will rent optical scanning voting machines to replace touch-screen machines that the state says are inaccurate.

Voters in Beaver, Greene and Mercer counties will mark ovals for their candidates on the ballots, in a procedure similar to a school test.

"It's the best solution under the circumstances. We need to have a quick fix so we can have a primary election the voters will feel confident in," Greene County Commissioner Pam Snyder said Monday.

The Department of State decertified the UniLect Patriot machines last week after they failed an accuracy test. State and county officials met in Beaver yesterday to talk about what to do.

"We will certainly pay for any costs that the counties have to incur because of the decertification over and above what they typically would pay for in a normal election year," Department of State spokesman Brian McDonald said.

McDonald said the department hopes to know those costs within two weeks. The primary, featuring hundreds of candidates in each county for school board, township and borough offices, is May 17.

Snyder said the counties will declare emergencies allowing them to rent the machines from one of two companies without seeking bids.

Beaver County spokesman Brian Hayden said his county expects renting the machines to cost about $85,000. The rental package will include the machines, ballots, worker training and having a company representative on site before, during and after the election, Snyder said.

Hayden said the counties also asked to be reimbursed for UniLect system materials that can no longer be used.

Beaver County used the optical scanning system before switching to the touch-screen system in 1998. Hayden said the county fears it could lose election workers.

"They don't want to work with a true paper ballot. We're hoping the optiscan is an efficient enough system to keep those people," he said. "It's a problem statewide finding enough election workers to start with."

Snyder and Hayden said they expect their counties to have to use the rented machines for the general election in November. Hayden said he doesn't expect a new permanent system to be in place until the 2006 primary.

"Beaver County is interested in having another electronic voting system because it worked so well," he said.

Snyder said the counties refused to use paper ballots.

"These three counties were ahead of the curve on electronic voting, and we're not going to go back to that," she said.

A Mercer County representative could not be reached.

Commissioners from the three counties said last week they were not aware of any past problems with the machines and do not think any elections were affected.

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