Berks has problems with electronic poll books

Berks County polls will be open for an additional hour tonight.

The move comes due to a problem with new electronic poll books being used for the first time countywide on Tuesday, which caused problems at several polling stations.

Earlier in the day, attorneys representing the county’s Republican and Democratic committees filed emergency motions in Berks County Court to keep polls open until 9 p.m.

Judge James M. Lillis issued an order just before 4 p.m. granting the extension, according to Jason Ulrich, an attorney for the Berks County Democratic Committee.

Ulrich said anyone queuing from 8 p.m. will be allowed to vote traditionally. Anyone who arrives at a polling station between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. will be authorized to cast a provisional ballot.

“We thank the Republican committee for working with us on this issue to address voter rights,” Ulrich said.

The request for extended voting hours was made due to technical issues Tuesday morning with the new electronic ballot books the county was implementing for the first time. After learning of the issue, election officials dispatched paper ballot books to every polling station in the county.

Kevin Boughter, chairman of the Berks County Democratic Committee, said the ballot book issue caused delays in some polls and forced some voters to walk away without voting.

“It’s been a total disaster in every poll I’ve heard from,” he said.

The buyer said he heard from committee members from at least 25 precincts where there had been problems with the poll books.

Berks County Republican Committee Chairman Clay Breece could not immediately be reached.

The buyer and county officials said the Republican Committee also asked the court to extend the vote for an hour.

County public relations officer Stephanie Weaver declined to comment on the petition.

Berks County officials said this morning they are aware of the issue affecting the new electronic ballot books and that paper ballot books are being distributed throughout the county.

Weaver said the paper ballot books were distributed by so-called itinerant poll workers who commute between multiple polling stations. The truckers had the paper poll books in their vehicles, a measure taken in case there was a problem with the electronic registers.

Weaver said the elections office was notified of the issue shortly after polls opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday. Election officials contacted the election judge at each polling station and told them paper books would be delivered.

Weaver said not all of the electronic ballot books had encountered any issues, but the decision was made to switch to paper ballots in all precincts to maintain continuity across the county.

Election judges have been ordered to keep polls open and not let the ballot book issue impact the vote in any way, Weaver said. It was not known when all the paper books had been delivered.

This is the first election where all precincts in the county were required to use electronic poll books.

A statement from the county was not more specific about the problem or the extent of the problem.

Officials said details of the matter will be reviewed after Election Day and a full explanation will be provided at that time.

Electronic poll books are updated in real time on a closed system and resemble an electronic tablet. They are responsible for the complete list of registered voters for a particular constituency and were to replace the paper lists of registered voters in each constituency.

The commissioners last year purchased 440 electronic poll books for $1.1 million from Election Systems & Software. The devices have been certified by state election officials, but counties have been encouraged to try them on a pilot basis before widespread implementation.

The county tested the books at five polling places last fall.

Because today was the first time the books will be used in all constituencies, the Electoral Commission voted in April to make printed poll books available for each constituency as a last resort.

State Representative Manny Guzman said the situation with the poll books was completely unacceptable.

“Those poll books weren’t ready for prime time,” he said. “It makes me doubt the preparedness of the county when something like this happens.”

The Reading Democrat ran into problems with the poll books when it attempted to vote around 7:30 a.m. in its neighborhood. He said he was unable to vote until around 8:40 a.m. after declining an offer to fill out a provisional ballot.

“People don’t have time to deal with the failures of county election officials who didn’t make sure poll workers knew how to use poll records,” he said. “The idea that people could give up their right to be heard is unacceptable. It is voter suppression through incompetence at the top.

Guzman noted that election officials in his constituency did everything they could to resolve the issue and noted that their dedication and professionalism were excellent. He said the fault lies with an apparent lack of training they received.

“These people have been suspended, and voters and democracy are suffering,” he said.

Guzman said he plans to request an investigation into the matter to ensure the county is ready for the November general election.

Colin L. Johnson