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State to send election liaisons to every Pa. county on Nov. 2

October 22, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The Pennsylvania Department of State is sending liaisons to every county in an effort, it says, "to stay abreast of any issues that arise" on election day, but one legislator suggests they confine their efforts to one part of the state.

"Send them to Philadelphia to count the tombstones, because they'll be voting there," state Sen. Terry Punt, R-Franklin, said Thursday.

"It's no more than an attempt to intimidate local election boards because the Democrats don't want (Ralph) Nader on the ballot," Punt said of the Independent Party candidate.

"They are strictly there as liaisons between the department and the election boards," said Brian McDonald, a department spokesman. "We think on election day their minds will change quickly about this."

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McDonald said questions are likely to arise on Nov. 2 because of a big increase in registered voters for the presidential race and the voter identification and provisional ballot provisions of the federal Help America Vote Act.

According to an Oct. 12 department memorandum, the state will send one or two people to each county. One is to be with the county board of elections and be available to connect election officials with a staff member of the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation to answer questions.

"Another will be assigned to the County Court to keep the Department informed of any legal actions that may be initiated," according to the memorandum.

"Any individual assigned by the Department will be present only to offer assistance, and not to make any legal decisions on behalf of the county," it states.

McDonald said a number of the liaisons will be state employees who are attorneys, but not necessarily ones with backgrounds in election law. A meeting was held Thursday to brief them on the types of scenarios that might come up, he said.

"If I were an election board and they tried to get in the way, I would throw them out of the courthouse," Punt said. That was similar to the advice given Thursday in a memo from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, or CCAP.

"Each county Board of Elections, if it determines that any of the representatives of DOS are stepping outside the liaison role, may remove them from the election operation," the association memo stated.

Punt, who is running for re-election, said he has never seen the state try and involve itself directly with county election procedures during his 34 years in politics.

"I don't know where (Gov. Ed) Rendell thinks he has any authority to do this," Punt said. "He has no authority, no legal standing, to question the legitimacy, honesty and integrity of county boards of election."

The CCAP memo, from Executive Director Douglas E. Hill, also expressed concerns.

"The media continue to quote Governor Rendell that they are the State's 'eyes and ears' and that they are there to 'determine potential problems' - hence our concern that there is at best confusion between the liaison and agent roles," the memo stated.

"The Commonwealth does not have a statutory basis to require the counties to allow these individuals into the election office," according to CCAP.

County Commissioner Cheryl Plummer, a member of the board of elections, said she is not sure what role the observers will play in the election.

"They are not there to play Big Brother or look over anyone's shoulder," McDonald said. "Everything we are doing here is all in the name of protecting the democratic process."

In past Franklin County elections, only sworn officials - including the Board of Elections, poll workers and county employees - have been allowed in the room in the Administrative Annex where the ballot boxes are delivered and the votes tabulated. That room, however, can be observed by the public.

The paper ballots are read and tabulated by optical readers, according to Jean Byers, the county's deputy chief clerk.

"We've had this system since the late 1980s and we've never had a problem," Byers said.

In cases where candidates petitioned the court for recounts, "the recounts have never differed from the machine," she said.

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