"What's black and white and read all over?"

Sunday, April 30, 2006
Posted 10:30 PM by

A stickler for details

Why does Pennsylvania even bother to have a state Constitution anymore if the courts can preempt or ignore it and then not tell us why?

A federal judge ruled Friday that Allegheny County could use new voting machines in the May 16 primary, even though voters argued that the move might risk chaos. Try finding the judge's decision online, though, and you're out of luck.U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Lancaster on Friday struck down the last court case that could prevent Allegheny County from purchasing new electronic voting machines and using them on election day.

Plaintiffs, including seven Allegheny County residents and People for the American Way, a liberal group based in Washington, D.C., had claimed the switch to Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software Inc's iVotronic machines risked chaos because of the lack of time to train election officials and educate voters on the new system.

But Lancaster said voters and poll workers should have no trouble and that the county election office has "a proactive and well-organized plan" for educating voters before the May 16 election.

"Contrary to plaintiff's assertions, a demonstration in the courtroom showed voting on the iVotronic is not at all complicated," Lancaster said.

I'd love to link you to his decision, but none of Lancaster's decisions have been posted online for the public to read at the District Court Web site since 2003.

When Westmoreland County elections officials tried to buy the very same voting machines months ago, the resulting lawsuit touched off a statewide firestorm.

The case worked its way up to the Commonwealth Court, where Judge Dan Pellegrini issued a well researched 29-page opinion on Feb. 13 in support of an injunction against the purchase of the new machines even though it might cost the county federal grant money.

His reasoning was pretty simple: Both the state Constitution and state election code clearly require any change in voting machines to be approved by a majority of voters in a referendum using the old method or machines.

"Even if the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Election Code are not preempted and a vote of the Electors is required, the Board of Elections and the Secretary contend, nonetheless, that a permanent injunction should not be granted because more harm would come from granting the injunction than refusing it," Pellegrini wrote. "The harm they allege is that they have already received federal funding for the purchase of the electronic voting system and they may lose that funding if they do not purchase electronic voting machines for use in the 2006 May primary. They also argue that if they cannot change Westmoreland County's voting machines, it would be burdensome on election officials, cause added expense and cause some confusion on the part of the voters, either to have paper ballots or separate elections machines for state elections, while having to maintain the current system. While there may be some confusion among voters and additional costs certainly will be imposed, what those arguments ignore is that the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Election Code require a referendum."

Westmoreland County appealed to the state Supreme Court, which promptly reversed Pellegrini's decision on March 2 with a one-page ruling, but promised to file a full opinion later.

On Tuesday, it will be two months since the state Supreme Court let counties buy new voting machines in violation of state election code and the Constitution. The justices have yet to tell the public why they did it.Tuesday will mark two months since the date of that decision. Yet, no full opinion from the court detailing its reasons for overturning Pellegrini's injunction has yet been filed and placed online for the citizens of Pennsylvania to read.

The state's highest court does not allow its sessions to be televised, much less its deliberations.

So, the least the justices could do when reversing the state Constitution and a lower court's order of this much public import with this many millions of dollars on the line - not to mention a statewide primary election - is to give us all the reasoning behind their decision in a timely manner.
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