Three weeks after the Chester County commissioners unanimously agreed they would retain the county's punch-card voting system for the upcoming primary, there apparently has been a change of plans.

The election board will most likely hold a meeting this week to choose the voting system that will be used for the May 16 primary and special elections.

At a Feb. 28 public hearing, the commissioners and Lawrence J. Tabas, the county's special counsel for election laws, said because of pending lawsuits at the state and federal levels and the amount of time left before the primary, they believed it best to keep the punch-card voting machines and supplement them with one new handicapped-accessible machine at each polling place.

Two days after making that announcement, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on a case in Westmoreland County that Tabas said cleared the path for the county to move ahead and purchase new machines.

"We weren't going to do anything before the primary unless we got some ruling from the state supreme court and some kind of guidance from the federal government," Tabas said in a March 14 phone interview.

Additionally, purchasing the machines, getting them to Chester County and training the poll workers in time for the election will not be an issue, he said.

"That can be done," Tabas said. "We've looked into that."

Commissioner Donald Mancini and commissioners' Chairwoman Carol Aichele, both Republicans, could not be reached for comment. Democratic Commissioner Andrew Dinniman was traveling out of the state and unavailable.

The county needs to purchase new machines in order to comply with the requirements of the Help Americans Vote Act passed in 2002.

Federal HAVA legislation allows spending of several billion dollars to help states update voting systems, streamline voter registration and provide voter and poll-worker education. It also requires voting systems to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly also has passed similar legislation. This latest development has alarmed members of the Chester County Coalition for Voting Integrity, a grassroots organization that has been vocal throughout the selection process.

Marian Schneider, a co-founder of the coalition, suspects the commissioners are being pressured to make a decision by an outside force, whether it be local officials or someone at the state level.

In the meantime, she said she feels she and her supporters have been shut out of the process.

"The commissioners will not respond to me or the members of the coalition," Schneider said. "I don't know exactly what they are going to. To have these machines rammed down their throats is just unconscionable."

The coalition supports selecting a machine with a "voter-verified paper ballot."

The other issue is who will make this decision.

A meeting was to be held last Thursday but it was cancelled because Dinniman and Aichele each resigned from their positions on the election board, citing a state law prohibiting candidates for office from holding such a position.

Both will be opponents in the May 16 special election to fill the vacancy in the 19th District of the Pennsylvania State Senate, the seat held by Sen. Robert J. Thompson until his death in January.

Dinniman and Aichele submitted resignations letters to Common Pleas President Judge Paula Francisco Ott March 15.

Ott will now be responsible for selecting two new members for the election board, one Republican and one Democrat, to join Mancini.

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