The Justice Dept. said counties must comply with a federal law on voting systems by the May primary.By Nancy PetersenInquirer Staff WriterThe U.S. Department of Justice has waded into Pennsylvania’s growing crisis over voting systems, threatening to sue the state if its counties fail to be in compliance with federal law by the May primary election. In addition to the potential lawsuit, Wan J. Kim, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, also warned in a letter to Pennsylvania Attorney General Thomas Corbett dated Feb. 21 that $23 million in federal funds might be at risk. He said he plans to file a complaint in federal court within 10 days.
“We hope to resolve this matter through a negotiated consent decree,” Kim wrote.
It is not clear with whom the U.S. Justice Department would negotiate a consent decree, and the federal agency did not return phone calls seeking to clarify the letter. In addition to Corbett, Kim’s letter went to the Pennsylvania Department of State and the solicitor of Westmoreland County, which was successfully sued in Commonwealth Court to block the switch to new
voting machines without voter approval.
The Westmoreland case has been appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to issue its ruling next week.
Triggering the threatening missive from the federal agency is the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002 in the wake of the 2000 election debacle in Florida. The law, which standardized voting procedures, mandates that all jurisdictions upgrade to electronic machines in time for the 2006 federal primaries. Levers and punch cards do not meet that standard. The law also mandates that each precinct in the country have at least one voting machine that can be used by handicapped voters. A similar letter was sent last month to New York, which is also struggling to comply with the federal law.
Three counties in the Philadelphia region need to replace their voting machines for the May primary: Delaware and Bucks Counties, which have lever machines, and Chester County, which has punch cards. Kim noted in his letter that several counties in the state that use lever machines and punch cards have failed to upgrade their systems as the federal law requires. That includes Bucks and Chester Counties; Delaware County has purchased new equipment.
Yesterday, Chester County officials said that for the May primary, they are considering running the punch-card system and augmenting it with a single electronic machine in each precinct that would comply with the federal requirements. Commissioner Don Mancini said a final decision could come next week after the full board meets with its solicitors and special counsel Lawrence Tabas.
“It’s murky; it’s just murky,” Mancini said. “We’re just trying to come to the right decisions.”
Last week, Delaware County, which is in the midst of rolling out its new Danaher electronic voting machines, decided to haul its old lever machines out of storage and get them ready for the primary. That move came in response to the Commonwealth Court ruling in Westmoreland County.
The Department of Justice letter will not interfere with the court proceedings in that case, Department of State spokeswoman Allison Hrestak said. She said the letter confirms the state’s position that the federal law trumps the state election code.
“The DOJ letter serves to reinforce our belief that we have chosen the correct course of action since the beginning,” she said.
In addition to the purchase of new equipment in Delaware, Chester and Bucks Counties, one other county in the region – Montgomery – had to upgrade its equipment to comply with the federal law.
Joe Passarella, director of voter services in Montgomery County, said that at least one machine in each precinct will be outf
itted with a special audio device by Election Day so that blind voters can use them. The device, which will allow the blind to vote without assistance, is in the federal certification process now and is expected to be certified by the state by mid-March. As with Montgomery County, Philadelphia will also add equipment to its existing electronic machines to comply with the federal law.
But given the problems around the state, he said the date for compliance – which in Pennsylvania’s case is May 16 – should be pushed back. A bill to that effect has been introduced by U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) but appears to be languishing in committee.
“Counties are being rushed into a decision,” Passarella said. “That is not the best way to do business.”