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Paper ballots a quick fix
 By Bobby Kerlik
Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Voters in three Western Pennsylvania counties will not use touch-screen voting machines for the May primary even if the state recertifies the machines.

Elections directors in Beaver, Mercer and Greene counties all said they will use optical-scan voting machines, which feature a paper ballot similar to that of a standardized test's answer sheet, on May 17.

"I can't wait any longer (for a state decision). I'd never be ready," Beaver County elections director Doreen Mandity said Tuesday. "The main issue is the organization."

The three counties had to find another type of voting machine after a Feb. 15 test of the UniLect Patriot voting machines found problems with recording and counting votes. The Department of State decertified the machines April 7. The state conducted another test last week after personal appeals from UniLect Corp. President Jack Gerbel.

Carnegie Mellon University computer specialist Michael Shamos, who did both tests, said he hopes to report his findings to the state by the end of the week. He would not say whether he will recommend recertification.

State Department spokeswoman Allison Hrestak said the agency will act quickly after reviewing Shamos's report.

"If everything is found to be OK, the counties could use the systems. If not, the vendor can make adjustments and get it recertified in time for the November elections," Hrestak said.

Beaver, Greene and Mercer counties are the only ones in Pennsylvania that used the Patriot machines.

"If they are recertified, we may use them for the November election," Greene County elections director Frances Pratt said. "We thought we had a good system."

Because of the switch, the counties must order equipment, including ballots and machines, Mandity said. The state will pay for the costs, roughly $100,000 per county, for changing from touch screens to optical scans for the May primary.

The switch also means that write-in votes will be counted by hand.

"The thought of hand-counting ballots blows my mind," Mandity said. "I thought our county was ahead, and now we're going way back."

Beaver and Greene counties went to UniLect electronic systems in 1998. Beaver County paid $1.2 million to switch from optical-scan systems, while Greene County spent $400,000 to switch from hand-counted paper ballots. Mercer County spent $1 million for UniLect systems, which replaced lever machines in 2001.

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