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3 counties here choose paper ballots

Thursday, April 28, 2005
By Tom Barnes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG With still no word from the state on the reliability of a touch-screen voting system, three Western Pennsylvania counties have decided to use paper ballots in the May 17 primary election.

"I need to get ready for this election,'' Beaver County Elections Director Dorene Mandity said yesterday. "I'd hoped we'd have an answer from the state by now, but we're just too close. We'll use paper ballots.''

That was also the word from Mercer County Elections Director Tom Rookey and Greene County Director Frances Pratt.

The three counties are the only ones in Pennsylvania that had been using the Patriot by UniLect touch-screen voting system, which was decertified by the state earlier this month because of problems recording and counting votes.

At the insistence of UniLect officials, the system was re-examined last Friday by a consultant for the state. There had been some complaints that the machines weren't registering all the votes of people who touched the screens.

However, no decision has been issued yet by the state and officials from the three counties said it's getting too close to the May 17 election.

"The election is in 19 days we're out of time,'' Rookey said.

So Mercer, Beaver and Greene have opted to go back to the Opscan system, which they'd used in the past. It uses paper ballots containing ovals next to a candidate's name. Voters use pens in a voting booth to fill in the oval of their candidate.

"It's like taking tests in high school or college, where you filled in the spaces,'' Rookey said.

The paper ballots are then fed into an optical scanning machine to tote up the results. "The machine can scan 8,000 ballots per hour," Pratt said.

The use of the paper ballots won't come cheap, however. Rookey estimated he'll spend $100,000 to print up 80,000 ballots and train 430 precinct workers and other elections workers on Opscan.

"This is the worst possible election for this to have happened,'' he said, because it's a primary, and ballots with Democratic candidates, Republican candidates and Independent Party candidates are needed, plus there is a statewide ballot question on borrowing for environmental programs.

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