Main Links
VIP Home
Who is VIP?
National Activity
Projects
How Can I Help?
Interesting Sites
Archives


Report of
The Allegheny County Elections Division Transition Team
to
Allegheny County Chief Executive James C. Roddey
July 21, 2000

Scope and Staffing of Assignment

The Allegheny County Elections Division Transition Team ( the "Team") was announced on March 8, 2000. Nine individuals, under the leadership of Robert M. Owsiany, convened on eight occasions between March 21 and July 13, 2000. The bipartisan Team consisted of five men and four women from different parts of the County, and included one African-American. Attendance at meetings was nearly 80%, with eight of the nine members having an attendance rate of 75% or better. An attendance chart is attached as Exhibit 1. Members of the Team are Robert Owsiany, Chairman, Phyllis Armstrong, Secretary, Carol Chaplin, Brenda Frazier, Shirley Novak, Judge James H. McLean, Keith Schmidt, Henry Sneath, and Richard Stampahar.

Mark Wolosik, Director of the Allegheny County Elections Division ("Elections Division"), and Norman Mekkelsen, Director of Allegheny County Department of General Services, were guests at all of the meetings, other than the July 13th report drafting meeting.1 Assistant District Attorney Scott Bradley attended the April 12th meeting as well. The Team met with Dr. Richard J. Orgass of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management of Carnegie Mellon University on April 3rd, and were his invited guests on May 4th, where the Team received a demonstration of software developed by Carnegie Mellon students working with Dr. Orgass to computerize the registration records of Allegheny County. At the meeting on May 24, Colleen Willison of the Kennedy Township Committee for Community Awareness ("KTCCA") presented a paper to the Team on the matter of perceived voter fraud in Kennedy Township. She was accompanied by David Moses. Angelo Papa, an attorney working with Clairton resident Dominic Serapiglia, reported on potential voter fraud in Clairton and joined the May 24 meeting via teleconference. Mr. Owsiany also spoke via telephone with several other voters, referred to him by the County Executive's office, who complained of voter fraud, including Frances Brown of Harrison Township (Natrona Heights).

The Elections Division Transition Team was appointed to review the operations of the Allegheny County Elections Division with the purpose of evaluating efficiency, reducing cost and preventing voter fraud.

Legislation Affecting Voter Registration

The Team spent considerable time reviewing the elements of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C.A. 1973gg-1973gg-10 (West, 1994) ("NVRA"), and the Pennsylvania Voter Registration Act of 1995, Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 25 961.101-961.5109 (2000) ("PVRA"). Copies of these statutes are attached as Exhibits 2 and 3 respectively. Because of Pennsylvania's initial lack of compliance with the NVRA, the federal government instituted legal action. As a result, the PVRA was adopted at the "11th hour" on June 30, 1995 under a court ordered stipulation. Unfortunately, the PVRA added greater administrative complexities to the NVRA. The NRVA is known as the "Motor Voter" Act, and its purpose is to facilitate voter registration at the time an individual applies for a driver's license or changes his/her driver's license information. Thus, it is very easy to become a voter through the PA Department of Transportation, but it is unfortunately very difficult to remove names from the voting rolls if voters move or die. The General Assembly's Joint Legislative Budget and Finance Committee published a report in February, 2000 entitled "Status of State and County Efforts to Implement the PA Voter Registration Act", a copy of which is attached as Exhibit 4.

The simple math of Allegheny County voter registration statistics demonstrates how bloated the rolls have become due to Motor Voter. Prior to 1993, the Elections Division was permitted (indeed it was required) to purge the rolls of persons who had not voted in any of the four elections within the previous two years. Motor Voter prohibits this type of general purge, and also prohibits any group of voters from filing, under the Pennsylvania Elections Code, petitions to purge persons who have moved or died. There is simply no way to remove persons who change their address and fail to notify the Elections Division of that change (other than through a series of uniform mass mailings), or to remove persons who have died without a death certificate.

The result is that there are tens of thousands of names of persons on the voting rolls who do not live here. While Allegheny County had 716,901 voters on its rolls in 1990, when it had a population of 1,336,449 according to the 1990 Census, 890,102 persons were on the rolls for the April 4, 2000 primary, even though the Census Bureau estimates Allegheny County's population to have declined by July 1, 1999 to 1,256,806. Thus, we have gained 173,201 voters during a decade when we were losing at least 80,000 residents. According to Census Bureau estimates, Allegheny County now has a voting age population of approximately 985,000 persons. We can all hope that our current 90% registration rate is due to the efficiency of Motor Voter. But we strongly suspect that "dead wood," not an increased interest in voting, is what is driving these figures. If the voting rolls are not cleaned up, we will soon have more registered voters than persons eligible to register in Allegheny County. We already are reporting turnouts as being less than they really are (hurting "voter morale") because of the inaccurate voting rolls.

The Elections Division is in the process of trying to update the voting rolls by negotiating the bureaucratic maze created by the NVRA and PVRA. It is not an easy job. In December, 1999, the Division mailed approximately 109,000 notices to voters that the postal service recorded as moving in order to determine whether they have, in fact, moved. Although the NVRA requires but a single such notice, the PVRA added a second notice requirement, and the Elections Division is now about to mail 80,000 follow-up notices. Each of these two notices must be sent at least 90 days prior to a primary or general election. The Elections Division is also about to send out approximately 70,000 "five year notices" to persons with no voting or registration activity within the last five years. Only after a voter fails to respond to all notices and fails to vote in two consecutive federal elections can he or she be removed from the voting rolls. Thus, the current effort to clean up the voter rolls will not be effective until 2003, after the 2000 and 2002 federal elections. The Team vigorously supports the Elections Divisions' efforts to clean up the rolls and strongly recommends that County government provide the necessary funding to ensure that these efforts continue.

With respect to deceased voters, Pennsylvania House Bill 1686, which would loosen requirements for providing proof of death, passed on May 16, 2000, (198-0), but it must also pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor. The NVRA permits voters' names to be removed based upon newspaper death notices, but the PVRA requires the submission of a death certificate. But, few names are removed in this manner, because the connection between the voter rolls and the PENNDOT rolls is not normally part of the estate settlement process. Until the PVRA is amended, confirmation of death by presenting or procuring a death notice or obituary is not an option. The Team suggests that if the General Assembly has not yet passed whatever legislation is necessary to permit an obituary or death notice to be used as a proxy for a death certificate to speed up the process of reducing the rolls, that the County Executive and all County Council members should write to all local State Senators and Governor Ridge and urge them to enact HB 1686 into law. Moreover, because any estate that is opened in the Register of Wills office must include a death certificate, the Register of Wills should make periodic reports to the Elections Division of all estates so that the decedents can be removed from the voting rolls.

Typical of the "deceased voter" problem is a letter from Ms. Charlotte Broome to County Executive Jim Roddey that he then forwarded to the Team. Ms. Broome noted that she received recently a voter identification card for her father, who died four years ago. She further states that he never resided at the address on the card and believes that he wasn't registered when he died. A copy of Ms. Broome's letter is attached as Exhibit 5.

In summary, the voting rolls have enlarged substantially, and the ability to remove voters for death and address change has become very difficult. The voter rolls are kept manually in Allegheny County, in heavy, cumbersome binders, which require manual collation. These binders no doubt literally contain a lot of "dead weight."

There are two new forms (see Exhibits 6 and 7 attached) that can be used to submit information changes to the Elections Division, including notification of change of address as well as death. The Team further suggests that these forms be made available to attorneys, Realtors, nursing homes administrators and undertakers to expand the collection of names that should be deleted from the rolls, and to provide persons who are moving with an easy method of requesting the Elections Division to remove them from the rolls.

We wholeheartedly support making it as easy as possible for persons to register to vote. Prior to Motor Voter, Pennsylvania established mail-in (sometimes called "postcard") registration in addition to in-person registration at the Elections Division. Now, people can register when they obtain a driver's license, or through interaction with various other government agencies. But the removal of persons who do not belong on the rolls has been greatly hindered by the NVRA and PVRA. We recommend that the County Executive and County Council lobby the Congress and the General Assembly for statutory changes to the NVRA, PVRA and Pennsylvania Election Code that would make voter list maintenance easier and more efficient. One way would be for the state or federal governments to provide direct funding for list maintenance. The NVRA does allow the Elections Division to do an annual county-wide confirmatory mailing to all 890,102 voters - but this would be a tremendous expense that the County cannot currently afford. The notice requirements that the PVRA adds to those in the NVRA should be eliminated. Finally, a simpler and far less costly method of list maintenance would be to allow once again a purge for lack of voting. Perhaps the former two year rule was too severe, but certainly if someone has not voted at any time during a four or five year cycle (which would necessarily include a presidential election), they can be purged on the assumption that they have moved or died. The Team endorses the reinstitution of the purge for failure to vote. Anyone can re-register should they desire to vote again. Moreover, the notice of removal includes an option for one to reinstate his or her registration just by responding to the notice. The existence of tens of thousands of registered voters who are not here provides an ample breeding ground for voter fraud.

Mrs. Armstrong dissents from the recommendation that the NVRA and PVRA be amended to permit a four or five year non-voting purge. She supports the League of Women Voters long standing position that no one should be removed for failing to vote.

Finally, Ms. Frazier requested that persons released from incarceration be systematically advised of their ability to vote. No one incarcerated for a felony within a previous five-year period may register to vote, but persons who were properly registered before incarceration, and who remain on the rolls after their release, may again vote, subject of course, to an address change if they do not return to their former residence. Many registered voters who could not vote while in prison do not know that their voting rights may be revived upon their release.

Voting Machines

The current voting machines are mechanical, rather than electronic. They are warehoused between elections. The machines are generally reliable and parts are obtainable for the foreseeable future. There is a major cost associated with storage of machines, approximately $300,000, which includes moving the machines to the polling places. The Team did not ask the representatives from the Elections Division for a detailed budget that focuses on incremental costs of managing the election system. This would be an important report to have in a possible reorganization of voting procedures, capital equipment procurement and department staffing.

The Elections Division did provide us with numerous brochures concerning electronic and computerized voting machines. Such systems are currently in use in neighboring Beaver, Butler, and Washington Counties, as well as other counties across the state. Many models are smaller in size (easing transportation and storage concerns) and can report the results electronically. But the Elections Division has received cost estimates of between $12 and $18 million to upgrade our system to electronic voting machines. Given the County's current budgetary constraints, we did not seriously address the subject of obtaining new voting machines. Ms. Frazier made a suggestion that perhaps residents could elect that some portion of the 2% discount one receives for paying one's county property taxes early be kept by the County instead and dedicated to the creation of a fund for voting machine replacement.

Reduction of the Number of Voting Districts

There are currently 1,309 voting districts in Allegheny County, and the number of assigned voters in each district ranges from a high of 2,356 (Pine, District 1) to as low as 12 (McKeesport, Ward 1). Assigned voters are reflective of the voter rolls which have not been purged to a significant degree within the past eight years. Section 502 of the Pennsylvania Election Code requires that districts contain no more than 1,200 registered voters, and at least 100 voters. Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 25 2702 (2000). Several communities average more than 1,200 voters per district (Pine, Marshall, North and South Fayette) while numerous older communities are below the county mean of 680 voters/district (e.g. the cities of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, Clairton, and McKeesport, and O'Hara, Shaler, and Stowe Townships). An analysis of the average size of the voting districts in each of the County's municipalities is attached as Exhibit 8.

The Team recommends that voting districts should be combined where possible, redrawn to be more equal in number of registered voters, and created, if necessary, in growing communities. Many voting districts already share the same physical polling place. Redrawing should, of course, take into account neighborhood and topographical concerns. Because some voting districts may fall into different local and state representative districts, and some municipalities elect officials by wards, this is easier said than done. But, it does need to be done. Following the 2000 census redistricting, the Team feels that fewer polling places more similar in size would save significant expense, perhaps by as much as $2,000 annually per district. It hopes that the 1,309 districts could be reduced to between 900 to 1,000 with a target of 900 voters per district. Such a reduction could save approximately $600,000 annually.2 Fewer election districts would reduce the cost of moving to electronic voting machines and digital registration.

Digital Registration

The Team was very impressed by the Carnegie Mellon demonstration of a proposed voter registration database. This system would eliminate the bulky voter registration books that must be transported to polling places. The electronic registration system would not currently replace the voting machines, but could ultimately be tied into an electronic voting system, when a budget for this comes available. The electronic registration system will require a laptop computer in each polling place and one or more servers and computers at a central site. Cost estimates range between one and two million dollars for the entire project.

It is not clear at this time how absentee ballots would be handled in an electronic environment.

Voters would be identified by an electronic signature match with a signature provided on site. Electronic records would be created from existing manual records, including a photo of the manual signature. The Team unanimously recommends that digital registration be installed at the earliest possible date. This would be the first critical change to be made to voting procedures management. Signature cards and registration books would remain in the Elections Division and not be removed and alphabetized in boxes, delivered to polls and then refiled after elections. Changes of address and deletion and addition of names would be handled electronically.

Voter Fraud and Training of Polling Place Personnel

A letter sent to Jim Roddey from a Judge of Elections in Pleasant Hills indicates a general lack of understanding of the NVRA and the PVRA, and reinforces the Team's recommendation that an annual tutorial be required for all individuals working in polling places. A copy of that letter is attached as Exhibit 9. Reports were received from the April 4th primary that local election board officials incorrectly told Democratic voters in the 44th state legislative district that they could not write in incumbent Republican John Pippy's name for the state house of representatives in the Democratic Primary. Of course, this can be done, and two other Allegheny County state representatives, Democrat David Mayernick (29th legislative district) and Republican Jeffrey Habay (30th legislative district), received both major Party nominations on April 4th due to write-in efforts in the opposite Party's primary. Further training might avoid some of the irregularities that have been reported by individuals referenced earlier in this report, and by Colleen Willison of the KTCCA, whose report to the Team is attached as Exhibit 10.3

Ms. Willison and her community watchdog association have attested to the improper opening of absentee ballots before the end of the election day, the addition of votes to absentee ballots before the count, individuals appearing to vote for deceased relatives, individuals voting for voters who have long moved, and individuals voting in Kennedy Township who have never lived there. For these violations to have occurred, the personnel in the polling place had to be complicit in the actions.

Clairton residents reported that voters from a housing project that was razed over one year ago have voted in the last two primaries and the last general election at their former polling place. The Elections Division had no meaningful response to this situation. Newspaper accounts detailed absentee ballot fraud in Harrison Township in the 1999 primary, and the DA did bring charges in that case. But we are deeply concerned that the alleged irregularities in Kennedy are not being taken seriously by anyone in County government. While the Team cannot conduct a thorough investigation, and does not pass any judgment on whether the KTCCA's allegations are true, the allegations do appear to warrant further investigation by the appropriate governmental agency.

The procedures followed after Ms. Willison reported the acts contained in the KTCCA's report did not lead to any resolution of her concerns. These allegations were brought before the Elections Division, and then sent to the Allegheny County District Attorney. The allegations were very serious, and Ms. Willison reported that the detective dispatched by the DA was more intent on making statements rather than gathering facts. The representative of the DA's office who appeared before the Team stated that the DA was disinclined to criminalize alleged election irregularities by investigating same. But they are criminal acts under the Pennsylvania Election Code, and they should be investigated. The Elections Division does not currently have an investigative staff, but if one could be provided, it could conduct some preliminary review. Such a staff should be provided. Ms. Willison's allegations are still without a satisfactory forum in which to be heard. Bureaucratic "buck passing" is not an acceptable response, as demonstrated in the letters exchanged between the Elections Division and DA that are attached as Exhibit 11.

Finally, the County Elections Board should not stand idle while the Elections Division and the DA quibble over who should investigate voter fraud. Under Allegheny County's new Home Rule Charter, the Elections Board consists of the County Executive and the two County Council members at large: Messrs. Roddey, Fawcett, and DeFazio. The Elections Board has the power and the duty to investigate voter fraud. Section 302 of the Election Code states:

The county boards of elections ... shall exercise ... all powers granted to them by this act, and shall perform all the duties imposed upon them by this act including the following:

* * *

(i) To investigate election frauds, irregularities and violations of this act, and to report all suspicious circumstances to the district attorney. Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 25 2642 (2000).

The County Elections Board should hire whatever personnel are necessary to fulfill its investigative and reporting function.

Voter Identification

A decided majority of the Team agreed with Judge McLean's recommendation that Pennsylvania require a photo identification card (e.g., one's driver's license or a passport) to vote. Such a requirement currently exists in Michigan, Florida, and South Carolina, and some jurisdictions in Connecticut. Presenting identification (with or without a photo) is also required in Alaska, Georgia, and Hawaii.4 Presenting photo identification would not enforce an identification challenge any better than a mere signature if the polling place personnel are determined to beat the system, but it would help to reduce voter fraud. Pennsylvania's only identification requirement is that the local election officer compare the voter's signature in the district register with the voter's certificate that the voter signs on election day. Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 25 3050 (1994). The County Solicitor should research whether Allegheny County may institute a photo identification requirement, or whether the Pennsylvania Election Code must be amended.

Mrs. Armstrong, reflecting the position of the League of Women Voters, supports the matching of signatures rather than requiring a photo identification card. The League has a history of trying to make voting easier, and requiring an identification card that might be difficult to acquire would not meet this goal. Courts have ruled that Social Security numbers cannot be used to identify voters. Disabled voters, some elderly voters, and others without driver's licenses would be somewhat inconvenienced by having to go to PENNDOT locations to receive photo identification cards, whereas they may now submit a registration form by mail, and receive their voter identification card in the mail. Of course, presenting a photo identification is now standard procedure when boarding an airplane or cashing checks at a bank. The rest of the Team suggested that any such burden could be ameliorated by permitting two forms of non-photo identification to be presented in lieu of a photo identification.

Summary of Recommendations

Digitalizing the voter records is the first and most important recommendation of the Team. This will require a budget for computers and servers. The Team recommends the use of the Carnegie Mellon system.

Tutorials for polling place workers should be an immediate objective, and would be a constraint on further irregularities.

Photo identification, or in certain cases, an acceptable substitute, should be required for voting.

Reducing the number of polling places would save funds and possibly enough to ultimately pay for the computer costs of digitalizing records.

Before records are computerized, an intense effort is needed to clean up the existing rolls, using the forms approved by the Elections Division, and possibly calling on volunteers (from the League) to review death notices, pass out forms to lawyers, Realtors, the Register of the Wills, nursing home administrators, retirement communities and undertakers, in order to facilitate the removal of deceased persons and individuals who may have moved. The NVRA and PVRA need to be amended in order to make registration list updating more efficient and less costly.

The Elections Board should break the log jam between the Elections Division and the DA by creating an investigative unit to respond to allegations of voter fraud.

Footnotes:

1. The Team extends its sincere thanks to Messrs, Mekkelsen and Wolosik for taking such a great interest in this project. In particular, the Team wishes to note that it found Elections Division Director Mark Wolosik to be extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and dedicated to preserving and improving the integrity of electoral process.
2. The Team did acknowledge that the size of the County Democratic and Republican Party committees could be affected by such a reduction, since each may have one committeeman and one committeewoman from every voting district. But Party rules (not the Election Code) establish how many committee members are chosen from each voting district, and the political parties are free to adjust or amend their rules to provide for more than two members per district should they desire.
3. Judge McLean did not attend the meeting with the KTCCA and did not participate in the discussion or drafting of this section.
4. The Team conducted only cursory review of other state laws, but the County Solicitor could conduct a more comprehensive review.

Copyright 1998 Voting Integrity Project. All rights reserved.
Questions or comments pertaining to this site? Email .