Some PA Counties May Ignore Paper Ballot Court Order

News & Politics

In the suburban county of Montgomery, just outside of Philadelphia, election officials have, inexcusably, been caught off guard by a new, court-mandated directive by PA's Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortes.

The direct requires that counties have enough emergency paper ballots (EPBs) on hand at polling places to ensure that voters can vote if half, or more, of a precinct's voting machines break down. County officials admit today that they were completely unprepared for the directive, and even for the likelihood of serious machine failure, despite known problems with the touch-screen voting systems they use, or the extraordinary voter turnout long-predicted for next Tuesday.

The new directive [PDF] was issued yesterday, following a court order in a that suit was filed last week against the Democratic Secretary, by the NAACP and a local election protection coalition. It followed on Cortes' directive a month a go that EPBs only needed to be given out to voters in the event of failure of 100% of a precinct's machines.

Cortes' original directive, and even the one issued yesterday, has been seen at odds with a PA statutory provision that allowed counties to offer paper ballots in the event that just one machine had failed. PA uses Direct Recording Electronic (DRE, usually touch-screen) voting systems across most of the state, and is a key battleground for John McCain's attempt to win the White House this year

Montgomery County's voter services Director, Joseph R. Passarella said on Friday that his county is not prepared to meet the directive, despite known problems and historic failures of electronic voting machines on Election Day in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, or even the widely-predicted unprecedented turnout that's expected.

He also said, according to the Philadelphia Intelligencer , that an "estimated…80 percent of the state's other counties do not have emergency ballots, having used provisional ballots for both purposes in the past."

Incredibly, Passarella also admitted today that he had previously planned to give just 100 provisional ballots, and 100 emergency ballots to each precinct.

Montgomery County election officials Thursday said they would comply with Wednesday's federal court order directing polls throughout the state to offer voters paper emergency ballots if half of the voting machines in that polling place become inoperable on Election Day.
However, officials do not have any concrete compliance plan in place at this time.
"We are just going to have to train on the fly," said county voter services Director Joseph R. Passarella, noting that all but one of the county's 18 poll worker training classes have been completed.
Simply placing a letter with detailed instructions on how to handle the situation in each poll's box of Election Day supplies "would only cause more confusion," said Passarella.
Also, there is no time to print additional individualized emergency ballots for each of the county's 418 polling places, according to Passarella. Even if there was time, all of the supply boxes for each poll "are packed and ready to go," he said.
So, in other words, even though the law already says paper ballots may be given out if even one machine breaks down, and even though the machines have broken down historically, and even though there is likely to record turnout and not nearly enough machines to serve voters as is, this county has not previously -- prior to the new directive from Cortes, or even in response to the old one, issued over a month ago -- made plans to ensure that voters would be able to vote come hell, high-water, or completely-predictable machine-failure.


Who Could Have Predicted It?
According to Wikipedia, Montgomery, a suburban area southwest of Philadelphia, has a population of approximately 800,000. The Democratic leaning county reportedly voted strongly for John Kerry in 2004, by a margin of 56% to 44% over George W. Bush. It is the third most populous county in the state.

In the 2004 general election, 379,715 voters reportedly voted on the county's DRE voting systems at their 418 polling places.

That's an average of 908 voters at each precinct in 2004. And yet, as the Inquirer reports, Passarella was prepared to have just 100 provisional and 100 emergency paper ballots on hand at each polling place this year, even with the predicted historic turnout.

To make matters still worse, Montgomery County forces voters to use the Sequoia Voting Systems' faulty, error-prone, hackable AVC Advantage DRE touch-screen voting machines. Those are the same machines that wouldn't start up at all in New Jersey on Super Tuesday this year, delaying Governor John Corzine, and other voters for nearly an hour on the morning of primary day.

The same Sequoia machines in New Jersey also reportedly flipped votes from Obama to Clinton that day, before proceeding to misreport vote totals in dozens of counties, and even lose votes entirely, as reported by Princeton University in their recently released court-ordered analysis of the Advantage machines.

"As a consequence of these flaws," the computer scientists at Princeton wrote, "voters were disenfranchised." The report was commissioned as part of a lawsuit by NJ election integrity advocates, the court ordered it's release just last week. The researchers were also able to pick the lock on the machine in 13 seconds, and do so without breaking the machine's security seals.

In February of 2007, we reported on the same Sequoia Advantage machines having been hacked in five minutes by a professor at Princeton University, who had purchased five of the machines on the Internet from an on-line government equipment clearinghouse for $86 apiece. NJ had purchased them for $8000 a piece.

John Bonifaz, of, the lead attorney in the successful NAACP lawsuit against the state of PA, writes via email this morning that the legal team in the case has been alerted to the report out of Montgomery County.

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