Counties all across the country are scrambling to secure new electronic voting systems required by the federal Help America Vote Act in time for the primary elections, which in Pennsylvania is May 16. So it should surprise no one that those machines are going to be difficult to acquire even under the best of circumstances.

In reaching a formal agreement with Election Systems and Software Inc. last week, Mercer County officials learned that the Nebraska-based company would guarantee the delivery of only 200 of the 290 iVotronic touch-screen machines the county ordered.

County elections chief Dr. Tom Rookey emphasized, however, that Election Systems and Software left the door open that more could be delivered in time for the primary. The company just didn’t guarantee it.

Rookey said 31 counties in Pennsylvania have contracts with Election Systems and Software, as do countless others nationwide, and it’s a pretty safe bet that most will be getting only partial deliveries for the primary.

“I consider this a problem that was created by ill thinking on the part of our federal government employees,” Rookey said. “Clearly this program should have been phased in because it involves every county in the United States at the same time. And that’s just plain silly.”

According to a purchase order dated March 22 and signed by the three county commissioners, Election Systems and Software promised to deliver 95 conventional and 105 handicap-accessible voting units in time for the primary. The other 90 would be furnished for the general election in November.

The deal is worth $981,885, or about $3,100 less than the $985,015 price announced earlier this month. Most of the cost will be covered by more than $900,000 in projected federal reimbursements through Help America Vote, which was enacted in 2002 to modernize the nation’s aging election systems.

Mercer County is in a better position than most, Rookey said, because 200 units represent 80 percent of the 250 used in the county’s 100 precincts with the decertified UniLect Patriot system.

In addition, turnout for this election cycle is expected to be nowhere near the 2004 presidential election when 70 percent of voters went to the polls. Rookey said numbers are typically in the 20 to 25 percent range, which means 200 units should be more than adequate. There are few contested races, he noted, and the biggest local issue might be the ballot question in Sharon asking voters to decide if they want a home rule charter study commission formed.

County solicitor Mark Longietti said county officials obviously would like to have had 100 percent of the units delivered, but he also recognized the reality that vendors are facing trying to meet orders all across the country and the fact that turnout is typically low for this election cycle. Everybody’s buying machines at the same time, he added, so what’s happening is companies are trying their best to supply the equipment to as many counties as possible.

Rookey said Election Systems and Software is one of many vendors in the difficult position of having to build and supply an overwhelming amount of equipment in a short time.

“I also believe this is a one-time problem,” he added. “It will be history in November.”

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