Out with the Old (Voting Machine), in with the New (Voting System)
Like all 67 Pennsylvania counties, Delaware County is under mandate to replace its voting machines by the end of 2019. In Delco, that means goodbye to the Danaher voting machines in place since 2005, which had notorious setup and reliability problems, and anyway are at the end of their useful life. Replacement of these machines has taken on added weight in light of recent election system hacking efforts.
The League of Women Voters of Delaware County is advocating an approach prioritizing “simple, reliable machines that use paper verifiable ballots,” according to LWV-Delaware County President Olivia Thorne. “We do not favor ballots that use barcodes to represent the votes, because they deny voters the ability to confirm their choices. Simplicity is valued to provide voter confidence and understanding of the process.”
Many voter advocates agree that paper ballots, marked by hand or adaptive machines, scanned and counted in an automated system represents the most secure solution for the voting process. Polling places will provide private tabletop booths at which voters can mark ballots to select candidates, and ballots can then be then scanned one at a time. It’s a faster process than queuing up for the two voting machines typically installed in a voting precinct.
This season, security is also preeminent in the evaluation of machines, which are potentially vulnerable if they require internet connection for updates and maintenance. In this case, simpler is better — and safer, said Kevin Skoglund, a cyber security consultant, voting machine expert, and founder of Citizens for Better Elections, which has advocated for the use of paper ballots statewide.
“We want to have evidence of every vote,” Skoglund said. “The old machines may have been counting votes correctly, but they couldn’t prove it. With hand-marked paper ballots, there is no barrier between voters and the recording of their intentions. A voting machine is another layer between the voter and his or her intent. It can fail to operate, it can malfunction, and it can be manipulated.”
The five vendors under consideration by Pennsylvania counties all offer marked paper ballots as their primary voting solution. Skoglund said, “It’s the most secure method, and in a nice bonus, it’s the cheapest. But a couple of vendors also are pushing the idea that everybody needs a touch screen. And that’s where we run into reliability problems.”
After federal and state voter election bureaus approved prospective vendors, Pennsylvania counties moved forward with their individual selection processes at varying paces. The League hoped that Delaware County might have put in place the new systems by the November 2019 elections, but, Thorne said, “We lost that one,” and the May primaries next year will be the first to use the new machines, six months before the next presidential election.
Vendors of the five systems in the running for selection statewide are Clear Ballot, which is preferred by the LWV of Bucks County; Dominion Voting, chosen by Montgomery County election officials and already used in the May 2019 primaries; Election Systems and Software, chosen by Philadelphia County; Hart Intercivic; and Unisyn.
Barbara Amstutz, president of the League of Women Voters pf Central Delaware County, said that in late spring, “Delaware County had an expo with each manufacturer on hand to do a demo, so you could compare and contrast, and a separate feedback session another night.”
All approved systems incorporate an electronic ballot marking device, Amstutz said. “It’s basically a tablet for voters with disabilities who can’t check or fill in the boxes, which generates a paper ballot without making the voter feel awkward.”
Thorne said, “As a poll worker, I like simplicity. Press a button on the back, type in the passcode, and the machine is set. And if there’s a power outage, you can just take your ballot and put it into a secure box for counting later.”
While the League and other groups and individual voters have reviewed and tested the machines and systems, it will be up to Delaware County‘s Board of Elections and County Council to make a final selection. The Board of Elections is expected to announce its recommendation to Council at the BOE meeting next Friday, September 6.
Funds have already been allocated for the acquisition of 850 systems bound for 428 precincts in Delaware County, where county leaders expect to receive $660,000 of the $14 million in federal funds allocated to Pennsylvania. County Council has allocated $7 million towards the expense of upgrading voting systems. There will be other costs: maintenance contracts, paper, software upgrades, and climate controlled storage of paper election ballots.
Skoglund said that for a typical polling place, the cost of the hand-marked ballot solution with a machine-marked tablet option, printers, and a scanner would be about $10,000 for the two machines required. “They all cost about the same. I don’t have a preference; every county should just pick what feels right out from among the five choices.”
Delaware County is committed to reaching a contract with one vendor in the fourth quarter of 2019, and spending up to six months training poll workers in advance of the May primaries in 2020. In keeping with its mission of ensuring accuracy, accountability, and access for voters, the League expects to participate in demonstration events of the machines and technologies that are chosen well in advance of actual election dates, Thorne said. “We want to make everybody feel comfortable enough to vote.”