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Voting system referendum to be on November ballot

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Attorney Karen DiSalvo speaks during public comment at a Lycoming County Board of Elections special meeting on Tuesday morning

After many hours across multiple meetings in which community members voiced their concerns over the 2020 election, Lycoming County voters will get the chance in November to share their preferred method for counting votes.

The Lycoming County Election Board determined Tuesday to add a referendum to ballots asking voters to determine how their votes will be counted in the future.

The county uses a system in which voters cast a paper ballot, which is then scanned electronically so that it can be tabulated. A group of concerned citizens has stated that they question the integrity of the system; the group wants to do away with it and return to hand-counting.

Commissioner Tony Mussare made the motion to put the referendum on the ballot with Commission Scott Metzger voting in favor. Commissioner Rick Mirabito cast the lone “no” vote.

In his presentation to the Election Board, Forrest Lehman, director of Voter Services, said there were two issues with petitions submitted to the Election Board with over 3,000 signatures last week.

The language of the proposed referendum referred to voting machines, rather than electronic voting systems. Voting machines have not been used in the county since 2006.

“They asked signers to endorse a question to ‘discontinue the use of voting machines,’ even though the correct question would have read, ‘Shall the use of voting machines be continued.’ Going in expecting to vote one way and then having to vote the other — that’s pretty significant,” Lehman said.

Secondly, the signature pages of the petitions did not include the circulators’ affidavits or statements, he said. The circulator is the person taking the petition door-to-door.

Referring to the protocol for nominating petitions, Lehman said, “No nomination petition would be accepted in voter services if it lacked a circulator’s affidavit or statement. It is required in order to document chain of custody of the petition because it cannot be circulated by more than one person and they cannot be circulated anonymously.”

The delineation between the voting systems and voting machines in the state’s election code was noted by Mirabito because the group had referred to voting machines and not systems.

“In our petition, it’s abundantly clear. We want it all. We want the machines, the tabulator,” said Karen DiSalvo, a local attorney representing the citizens’ group presenting the request for a referendum.

“If this is going to be a semantics game, I wish I would have the whole statute in front of me,” she added.

Later in the meeting, Mirabito asserted, “They’re two different things. A voting machine is not an electronic voting system.”

“So, we have to use the correct terminology because you’ve been referring to voting machines and the statute has a totally different section on voting machines,” he stated.

Lehman had raised this as one issue that could qualify for rejecting the petition. Another issue, raised by Leghman, referred to whether the petition is preempted by the Help America Vote Act which was passed in 2002 following the 2000 presidential election.

On the matter of the continued use of electronic voting systems, solicitor J. Mike Wiley cited a section of the election code that talks about the continuation of the use of electronic voting systems.

“I’ll have to say to the board that the same permissive language for the county board of election is not contained in that section, but there is nothing that prevents it,” Wiley said.

“There’s no question you have the ability to put the initial question on the ballot for a referendum, the issue as to whether or not you can do it to continue with it is not as clear, but there’s no prohibition,” he added.

Wiley advised Mussare, in making the motion to approve the referendum, that there were some issues that were “unclear” and could be challenged.

“I don’t think anybody’s acting out of malice here. If it’s challenged, it’s challenged,” Mussare said.

“I do not think the statute gives us the authority to do it,” Mirabito said, “and I think if the legislature wanted to give us that authority, it would be logical where they have in the statute to collect 10% of the signatures.

“They would say something like, ‘or the commissioners do it on their own,’ which begs the question: Why would the legislature require you to collect 10% if they were going to give the commissioners the authority to do it on their own?” he said. “The mere fact it’s not in the statute makes me think we don’t have the authority to do it.”

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