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State: Voters cannot use machines



Published: Sat, April 9, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A commissioner was upset that the state waited so long to announce decertification.

MERCER, Pa. -- Mercer County voters will likely be voting the old-fashioned way -- on paper ballots -- in next month's primary election now that the state has revoked permission for Unilect touch-screen voting machines to be used.

Mercer, Beaver and Greene county commissioners will meet with Department of State officials at 1 p.m. Monday at the Beaver County Courthouse to find out what their options are now that the state has declared the Unilect Patriot Voting System too inaccurate and inefficient to be used in Pennsylvania.

The DOS officials announced their decision to decertify the Unilect system Thursday, just 39 days before the May 17 primary election.

It would appear, officials agree, that the three Pennsylvania counties that use the system -- Mercer, Beaver and Greene -- will have no option but to use paper ballots for the primary. The re-examination of the machines came about at the request of a group of voters from Beaver County who disputed their accuracy.

'Stunned' by decision

Mercer County Commissioner Michele Brooks, who attended the Feb. 15 re-examination of the machines, said Friday she was "stunned" by the news.

Brooks attended the machine test on behalf of Mercer County commissioners and said that immediately afterward, a top member of the state commission indicated "they did not foresee a problem in the recertification of our voting machines."

She said that as recently as two weeks ago, state officials suggested that Mercer County proceed with Unilect training sessions for the primary election.

Brooks said that for the state to wait until now to announce the machines cannot be used shows "a complete disregard for the voters" and county election workers in the three counties because it completely changes preparations for the primary election.

Brooks said she wants to recoup the approximate $1 million the county spent to buy the machines several years ago.

System failure

The main reason the machines were not recertified, according to Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortes, is that during the re-examination, the system failed many times to sense screen touches and register these test votes. The screen also "froze" and stopped accepting touches during the re-examination.

This helped explain, Cortes said, why more than 10,000 votes were lost in the three counties in the November general election.

He pointed to a study done by Dr. Michael Coulter and one of Coulter's students at Grove City College that showed a large number of undervotes in Mercer, Greene and Beaver counties in the November general election. Undervotes is the term to use instances in which a voter cast a ballot but did not record a vote in the presidential race.

The certification was revoked at the recommendation of Michael Shamos, an expert consultant retained by the department of state. Shamos' report can be read at www.dos.state.pa.us by searching the site for "Shamos report" then clicking on "Unilect re-examination report."

The problems with the computer system came to light after breakdown of machines in the 4th Congressional District in Mercer County because of a programming error. Further examination showed many additional problems with the touch-screen system.




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