DEPT. OF JURISPRUDENCE
Court Orders Pa. to Provide Paper Ballots
By Mary Pat Flaherty
Anticipating high voter turnout and a repeat of equipment problems that caused delays during Pennsylvania's April primary, a federal judge late Wednesday ordered the state's polling places to offer emergency paper ballots when half the voting machines at a polling place don't work.
During the presidential primary, voters in various Pennsylvania counties reported leaving polling sites without voting or enduring hours-long waits when machines failed. Their experiences were recounted as part of a case filed by the Pennsylvania conference of the NAACP and other voting rights groups against Pedro A. Cortes, Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Until the court order, polling places wouldn't have been allowed to offer emergency ballots unless all of the machines at a polling place were not operational, according to rules laid out by Cortes. The voting rights case challenged the "100 percent" rule, arguing that voters would suffer irreparable harm if it was not changed.
Judge Harvey Bartle III, chief judge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, agreed and said protecting "the constitutional right to vote" outweighed the "minimal" harm to counties that now must keep an adequate supply of paper ballots on hand, teach staff when to issue them and tally more paper ballots on Nov. 4. Of the state's 67 counties, 50 use touchscreen voting machines as their primary equipment.
Pennsylvania's voting rolls have increased by 400,000 new registrations in advance of Nov. 4, a rise the judge called an "extraordinary" amount that could further test a system strained by the turnout in April.
Bartle wrote that "there is a real danger that a significant number of machines will malfunction" in the state and the problems are "likely to cause unacceptably long lines on November 4."
In Philadelphia, for example, more than 90 percent of precincts have no more than two voting machines. Elections officials there told the court that roving repair teams were available to address problems, most often involving dead batteries and broken printers, but that even these minor repairs could take approximately an hour to correct once poll workers called for help -- and that delays are even longer when machines must be replaced. During the primary, according to testimony, machines had to be replaced 15 times in Philadelphia alone.
Some waiting "is inevitable and must be expected," Bartle wrote in his decision, but "there can come a point when the burden of standing in a queue ceases to be an inconvenience or annoyance and becomes a constitutional violation."
"Life does not stop on election day," Bartle wrote, and "many must vote early or in the evening if they are to vote at all," making time of the essence for them. "There is no rain date," he wrote.
John Bonifaz, legal director for Voter Action and co-counsel for the plaintiffs said, "There is no question we were looking at a significant voting rights disaster before this ruling and we are hopeful that has been averted."
Cortes' office said in a statement that it will work with counties to make sure stores of emergency ballots are ready. "That said, we hope emergency paper ballots will not need to be used extensively on Election Day," in light of contingency plans counties already had in place for repairs, the statement said.
Posted at 9:54 PM ET on Oct 29, 2008
DEPT. OF JURISPRUDENCE
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