February 14, 2006 -- Voters in Westmoreland County will get the chance to exercise their constitutional right to choose how they will vote in future elections, according to a decision announced late yesterday in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Judge Dan Pellegrini issued the ruling in response to a suit brought by a multi-partisan group of citizens, elected officials, and state senator Jim Ferlo, who represents part of Westmoreland County.
Filed last month against Westmoreland County, and subsequently the Secretary of the Commonwealth, the action was in response to a late December decision by county officials to replace lever voting machines with electronic touchscreens without holding the voter referendum required by the Pennsylvania Constitution. Many organizations and individual citizens have expressed concerns about the electronic machines, which have a history of problems and would not produce any paper record to allow voters to verify that their choices are being counted correctly.
At issue in the lawsuit was whether or not the federal Help America Vote Act, which was passed in 2002 and is providing partial funding for the new machines, could override the Pennsylvania Constitution and mandate the purchase of electronic voting systems without giving voters the opportunity to decide to accept or reject the machines.
"The Pennsylvania Constitution's Declaration of Rights guarantees that the people will be the ultimate decisionmakers on changing voting systems," said attorney Charles Pascal Jr., who represented the citizens' group. "This case upholds that guarantee, and affirms that the Secretary of the Commonwealth cannot unilaterally determine that the state Constitution should be ignored and given no effect because of the requirements of HAVA."
Members of citizen-alliance group VotePA, applauded the decision as a victory for voters everywhere.
"The wisdom contained in our Pennsylvania Constitution is clear," said Marybeth Kuznik, founder of VotePA and a lead plaintiff on the suit, "and I am glad that the judge's decision recognized that protecting the right of the people to have their voices heard through the ballot box is central to our democracy."
Counties were originally expected under HAVA to have new systems ordered by January 1 and in place for the May Primary in order to retain the promised funding, but delays in testing voting machines at the federal and state level had already put that deadline in jeopardy. With the commencement of legal action, many Pennsylvania counties have put their purchase plans for new voting systems on temporary hold while waiting for the matter to be settled.
Activists in the state see the delays as a window of opportunity to educate more Pennsylvania citizens about the serious problems with paperless electronic voting, and to gather additional support for bills SB 977 and HB 2000 in the Pennsylvania Legislature. The identical bills would require voter-verified paper records to be produced by voting machines, and provide routine audits of all elections.
"Pennsylvania voters may well decide to move to more modern forms of voting," said Kuznik, "but regardless of what systems are chosen or used our citizens ultimately need the protection of being able to verify on paper that their votes are being recorded accurately. With the passage of bills like SB 977, and good court decisions like this one upholding voters' rights to full participation in the system, I am optimistic that our democracy can remain strong."
For more information about the Westmoreland County lawsuit, the citizens' group that filed it, or electronic voting and voting rights in Pennsylvania, please visit http://www.votepa.us .
Photo above: Charles Pascal, Jr. attorney for the citizens in the Westmoreland County lawsuit.