COUNTY AWAITS OK OF NEW VOTING BOOTHS LUZERNE COUNTY IS READY, BUT THE STATE AND FEDERAL CERTIFICATIONS ARE DELAYED

Wilkes-Barre, Times-Leader

By JENNIFER LEARN-ANDES

Saturday, October 08, 2005     Page: 1A

WILKES-BARRE – Luzerne County officials only have seven months to select and order electronic voting machines, teach workers and the public how to use them and find a climate-controlled space to store them.

But the county can’t tackle any of these pressing tasks until the state and federal government certifies which machines can be used. There has been a delay in certifications.

And county Election Bureau Director Leonard Piazza worries more delays will occur if the selected machine manufacturer gets bombarded with simultaneous orders from across the state.

Still, Luzerne County is ahead of many other counties because a citizen advisory panel already worked for months reviewing all of the machines and seeking public feedback, Piazza said.

“We did everything we could do up to this point. We’re at an advantage. A lot of other counties haven’t even begun to look at machines.”

Once the certification comes through, the advisory panel is prepared to quickly recommend one or two of its top three picks to county commissioners for purchase. The panel had planned to do this Friday, but canceled the meeting because of the delay in certification.

The state has certified one machine but is still completing reviews of models from seven other manufacturers, with some held up by delays receiving expert reports, said Allison Hrestak, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees the state certification.

The state plans to buy some certified machines in bulk to pass on better price to counties and reduce some of the red tape associated with contracting and purchasing, she said.

“Time is of the utmost importance right now, and they’re really trying to get these certifications in place,” Hrestak said.

Piazza doesn’t blame the state.

“The state did everything it can. Everybody seems to be waiting on the federal government. Machines can’t be used until they’re federally certified.”

If the machines arrive in a reasonable time period, Piazza is confident he’ll meet the deadline to have them running by the primary election on May 16.

He plans a major public awareness campaign, including TV and newspaper ads explaining in simple steps how to vote. Piazza is modeling the campaign after one that worked well when Philadelphia made the switch a few years ago. He also plans to set up machines at convenient locations so the public can practice, and might send out mailers.

Part of the awareness campaign can be funded from $3 million in federal funding earmarked for machine purchase and training.

It’s estimated the machines will cost between $3 million and $4 million, maybe more.

Piazza plans to train election workers in small groups and give them plenty of hands-on experience to make sure they’re comfortable. The vendor will supply much of the training, and Piazza also plans to propose hiring temporary part-time trainers. He doesn’t plan to hire additional full-time staffers because there are no assurances that the federal or state governments will offer additional money.

County officials are only in the preliminary stages of figuring out where the new machines should be stored.

Piazza doesn’t know if it is more cost efficient to upgrade the aging Water Street voting machine warehouse or to find a different place. The dusty building, which housed the Reichard and Weaver Brewery a century ago, is toasty in the winter but like an oven in the summer, workers say. An exterminator controls the mice and cockroaches.

Could the building be retrofitted to house millions of dollars in electronic equipment? County officials don’t know.

Though some of the electronic machines are compact when stored in their cases, Piazza said he needs enough room to open them up and prepare them for elections.

“It’s the footprint of the machine in the open position that really dictates the size of the facility.”

Luzerne County residents have until Oct. 11 to register to vote in the Nov. 8 general election.

Registration forms can be obtained two ways:

* Visit the election bureau on the second floor of the county’s Penn Place Building, 20 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Wilkes-Barre.

* Download a form at http://www.luzernecounty.org (click on Election Bureau, the register-to-vote button and then the PA voter registration application link). Mailed forms must be postmarked Oct. 11 to be valid. Mail them to the address above. The zip code is 18711.

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