Election systems in Pa. don't get vote of confidence

By Brad Bumsted
Published April 4th 2008 in Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
HARRISBURG -- The chairwoman of the House State Government Committee said she is concerned that Pennsylvania's local election systems could face serious problems on April 22 in the face of huge voter registrations and a possible record turnout.

"I do not have 100 percent confidence," Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, said Thursday. Her chief concern is whether up to 170,000 new voters, most of them Democrats, would be allowed to vote if they show up without ID or report to the wrong polling place.

She's worried about availability of provisional ballots, voting machines working and whether results will be counted properly in Republican-controlled counties with Democratic-majority cities.

Asked if she gained any confidence as a result of a hearing before her committee yesterday, Josephs said "some."

The Democratic presidential primary between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton marks the first time Pennsylvania's primary has played a critical role in a presidential race since 1976. Voters also will nominate members of Congress, the state General Assembly and state row offices.

Pedro Cortes, secretary of the Department of State, which oversees the state elections bureau, said the system is ready.

"I am confident the department and the counties will be well-prepared for the primary," said Cortes, who considers 155,959 new registrations to be "staggering" because typically there are only a few thousand in an election year.

The number could climb to 170,000 when all are counted, he said. In addition, 146,625 voters have changed parties, mostly from the GOP to the Democratic Party.

Josephs said she is not concerned about the Department of State being ready. But county elections directors were too busy to testify, and she worries about the local readiness.

"If we don't have an enormous amount of provisional ballots (and) if they are not readily available on the spot, then we have a big problem," she said.

New voters and people trying to vote in new precincts without identification will be given the chance to get their IDs and return to their polling places. If they tell elections officials that is not practical, they can fill out provisional ballots. They would have to produce valid ID later.

"The bottom line is we are confident that counties are prepared. We are anticipating any problems that would arise," said Doug Hill, lobbyist for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

It's possible that Pennsylvania could see a record turnout, Hill said.

Josephs might be worrying too much, said Rep.Matthew Baker of Tioga County, the ranking Republican on the panel.

"I am not as concerned," he said.

Cortes said that a recent security breach of online voter registration, which shut down that Web page, exposed the records of about 18 voters to hackers. That's from a pool of 51,000 records. The records viewed included driver's licenses and the last four digits of Social Security numbers, but to date, none of those exposed have been victimized, Cortes said.

Brad Bumsted can be reached at bbumsted@tribweb.com or 717-787-1405.