Wilkes-Barre, Times Leader
By MARK GUYDISH
Thursday, November 04, 2004 Page: 1A
WILKES-BARRE – In a best-case scenario, Luzerne County votes should be certified by Nov. 16, which would allow the county to focus on the next big issue: precinct consolidation.
Bureau of elections Director Leonard Piazza said that long lines in Dallas Township polling sites proved that the county precinct system needs an overhaul, and added “that will begin in earnest within the next few weeks.”
The county discussed the idea earlier this year but put it off until after this election to avoid problems.
Piazza said he hopes to revamp the system – combining some smaller precincts and dividing large ones like those in the booming Back Mountain area – before people start circulating nominating petitions for the spring primary next year.
“We need to have that plan approved as quickly as possible.”
The process will start by scrutinizing existing precincts in each municipality, deciding if they have shrunk enough to combine. For example, he noted, Luzerne borough has four precincts with “about 1,600 to 1,700 voters. That tells me there have to be at least two precincts there,” Piazza said, because the state caps the size of one precinct at 1,200.
“Jurisdictional boundaries” could prevent consolidation in some municipalities, he added. Voting precincts may be in the same city but in different legislative, magisterial or school districts, which would mean they couldn’t be combined.
He pointed to Swoyersville, where one of the precincts was “gerrymandered” into a different legislative district than the rest of the borough when the state redrew district lines after the 2000 census.
“We can’t touch that precinct,” Piazza said, even if it is small enough to combine with another one in the borough.
Any plans must be finalized by the county and approved by the state, he added.
Other than the long lines in Dallas Township, Election Day went fairly smoothly, Piazza said.
“Anything that did occur was anticipated and we dealt with it immediately.” He cited a delay at Heights-Martin L. Murray Elementary in Wilkes-Barre, when a judge of elections didn’t show up.
That also meant the materials and supply box, which includes the essential poll book listing eligible voters for that precinct, was missing. Piazza launched an emergency plan that allowed him to print a new book and send a staff member to the site.
The new book wasn’t needed, though. Piazza said the original box was located, though he wasn’t sure where, and taken to the school. The poll opened by 7:45 a.m., and the vote deadline was extended by one hour, though voters arriving after 8 p.m. had to, by law, cast a provisional ballot.
Only one ballot was cast between 8 and 9 p.m., Piazza added.
Provisional ballots, along with some absentee and military ballots, are the only ones that still have to be counted and added to the machine totals.
The bulk of that work begins at 9 a.m. Friday when “the first order of business will be to tally those absentee ballots.” The original deadline for absentee ballots was Oct. 29, and the county received more than 6,000 by then.
But the deadline was extended to 8 p.m. Election Day. Piazza said he believes fewer than 200 more came in as a result of the extension.
By law the county must also decide by Friday which provisional ballots cast Tuesday actually count. Piazza said that should be done Friday afternoon, leaving only military ballots – with a deadline of Nov. 10 – to be counted after Friday.
Piazza expects the number of those ballots to be small. In the spring primary “there were only about 50.” Which means “99.9 percent … of the votes will be counted Friday.”
Once the military ballot deadline passes and those votes join the official count, the county must wait five working days for any “petitions to re-canvass,” or recount the votes, Piazza said.
He expects no petitions locally, but a new law could trigger a statewide recount if results in state races are extremely tight once other counties make their numbers official.
All of that means the county vote could be certified on Nov. 16, Piazza said.