Voter interest surges in Pennsylvania suburbs

Posted: March 06, 2008

An onslaught of queries about registering to vote in Pennsylvania swamped suburban election boards yesterday as the nation's attention turned to the state's April 22 Democratic primary to settle a nomination fight that Texas and Ohio could not.

"The phone's been ringing off the hook," said Patti Allen, assistant director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

The sudden tide of suburban interest in the primary had two consequences yesterday.

First was the surge.

"The day after a caucus or a primary, we typically see a surge in telephone calls, e-mails and people coming in. Well, this is to the extreme today," said Deena K. Dean, director of the Bucks County Board of Elections.

How extreme?

"The phone doesn't stop ringing, for one thing," Dean said. "Secondly, my e-mail address is out on our Web site, and, well, I'm just not keeping up. We've also had a steady stream of people coming up to the counter as well, which is unusual."

Another quick measure: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's campaign picked up 5,000 new-voter registration cards in Delaware County yesterday, Chief Clerk Mary Jo Headley said.

In a matter of hours, the coming primary registered as a seismic event in the years-in-the-making trend of the suburbs' edging closer to political parity.

Yesterday afternoon, Montgomery County's voter rolls lost 79 Republican registrants and gained 48 Democratic ones, further narrowing the registration gap there to about 21,600, less than 5 percent of the county's total.

That gap had been 30,000 in November and was more than 23,000 on Friday.

"Even before we realized that we're the game in many ways, it was clear that there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm," Montgomery County Democratic chair Marcel Groen said.

In solidly Republican Chester County, Democrats are also making inroads. Since November, Democrats have registered more than 5,600 new voters, Republicans just 1,369.

In Montgomery County, interest in the primary has provoked some concern about the abilities of the machines that will count the ballots.

Montgomery is one of only two Pennsylvania counties using the Sequoia AVC Advantage voting machine, now the subject of an inquiry by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office over problems that arose in that state's February primary.

Although the machines have been used in New Jersey for years without major reported problems, 60 of the machines in four counties came up with identical problems in February counting the number of voters. Vote counts were not affected, but election officials have been confounded trying to solve what Sequoia has blamed on worker error.

"The findings do not make sense," Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollani wrote in a March 1 letter requesting the state investigation. "It is far too easy to blame the poll workers. Errors such as this have never happened before in Mercer County."

A spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General's Office said the situation remained unresolved, though Sequoia officials maintained otherwise and posted a blog entry yesterday saying "an easy configuration change" would prevent similar errors.

Montgomery County political and government officials said yesterday they were unaware of New Jersey's problems with Sequoia.

Susan Greenhalgh, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan election watchdog group Voteraction.org, said the problems encountered in New Jersey's primary show that the Sequoia machines are fundamentally unreliable because of the lack of a paper record of each vote cast.

"It is really worrisome," she said.

But Allen, of the Montgomery County election board, said the Seqouia machines had been reliable for years.

"Voting machines are the least of our problems."


Voter-Registration Deadline

March 24 is the last day to register to vote in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary. Only voters registered with a party can vote in that party's primary. Individuals may register at a county voter registration office or at other designated sites.

For information, call 1-877-868-3772 or go to www.votespa.com. The site, from the Pennsylvania Department of State, includes a registration form for downloading.

Bucks County

Board of Elections

55 E. Court St.

Doylestown, Pa. 18901

215-348-6154

www.buckscounty.org

Chester County

Department of Voter Services

601 Westtown Rd., Suite 150

Box 2747

West Chester, Pa. 19380

610-344-6410

www.chesco.org

Delaware County

Government Center

Ground Floor

201 W. Front St.

Media, Pa. 19063

610-891-4659

www.co.delaware.pa.us

Montgomery County

Department of Voter Services

1 Montgomery Plaza

Suite 602, Box 311

Norristown, Pa. 19404

610-278-3280

www.montcopa.org

Philadelphia

Voter Registration Office

Riverview Place

Fifth Floor

520 N. Delaware Ave.

Philadelphia 19123

215-686-1500

www.phillyelection.com


Contact Derrick Nunnally at 610-313-8212 or dnunnally@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Larry King, Lini S. Kadaba and Nancy Petersen contributed to this article.

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