Westmoreland County Lawsuit Has Hearing in PA Commonwealth Court
Will citizens get their say on electronic voting machine referendum?

February 7, 2006 -- Attorneys representing a group of Westmoreland County voters, the Westmoreland county commissioners and election board, and the Pennsylvania Department of State began duking it out in Commonwealth Court on Tuesday in a lawsuit. At stake is a Pennsylvania constitutional issue, and whether or not citizens should have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the move to electronic voting under the Help America Vote Act.

The object of the lawsuit filed by the voters is a provision in the Pennsylvania State Constitution that requires a referendum be placed on the ballot prior to a county moving to voting by machine. The Pennsylvania Department of State and other entities have taken the position that the referendum is not needed because HAVA, as a federal law requiring that older lever machines and other systems be replaced, overrides state law.

"Not so fast," the voter/plaintiffs who filed the suit are saying. The Help America Vote Act, as a federal law, may trump a normal state law in regard to federal elections, but getting into whether or not it can trump a state constitution is another matter. Charles Pascal, Jr. of Leechburg PA is representing the multi-partisan citizens group which in addition to regular voters includes several precinct election officials, a school board member, and state senator Jim Ferlo who represents part of Westmoreland County. Similar lawsuits have been filed in at least three other Pennsylvania counties.

Witnesses called on behalf of the county and state included State Department Policy Director William Boehm, and Mark Wolosik and Paula Pedicone who are the respective election directors of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. Following testimony, Judge Dante Pellegrini heard arguments from both sides. He will issue a ruling in a few days pending receipt of additional briefs and filings.

All parties agreed that there are weighty constitutional and voters rights issues at play here, as well as the potential loss of millions of dollars of HAVA funding if new voting systems are not delivered and operational by the deadline of the May 16 Pennsylvania Primary. Regardless of the outcome, the ruling is expected to be appealed.