Cumberland County commissioners are taking a second look at the agreement for new voting machines after discovering it would come with interest. They initially believed the five-year lease would be free of interest.
(TNS) — Cumberland County’s plan to replace its voting machines, as mandated by the state, has hit a bit of a rough patch in the last few days.
The county has learned it will likely be charged interest to lease the machines, and the Pennsylvania Department of State issued a report reexamining the specific type of machine the county plans to purchase amid concerns about the device’s security.
Those machines, the ExpressVote XL made by Election Systems & Software, are still kosher to use, according to the Department of State, but with new conditions.
The county commissioners learned at their Sept. 4 meeting that the county’s understanding that it could purchase the machines over a five-year period at 0 percent interest was incorrect.
Bureau of Elections Director Bethany Salzarulo said a “miscommunication” between elections staff and ES&S representatives was to blame.
The county planned to buy voting machines through Costars, the state-run vendor bidding system that typically provides the best prices for local governments’ capital purchases.
But the fine print on ES&S’ lease offer on Costars specifies a 5 percent interest deal, leading to a certain amount of consternation by the commissioners.
“If [zero interest] was represented to us, and that’s not the situation now, I have a problem with the whole purchase,” Commissioner Jim Hertzler said.
The county could buy the machines outright through Costars and separately get a financing deal from a third-party lender. But that lender won’t do it for free, and the lowest interest rate on a capital ease in the current market is around 3 percent annually, county Finance Director Dana Best estimated.
The county could also attempt to negotiate with ES&S outside of Costars for a lower-interest deal, given that county’s purchase will be substantial. Buying machines for all 118 of the county’s voting precincts will run close to $4 million, before any interest.
The ability of the county to truly bid voting machines competitively is hampered by the fact that the machines are typically proprietary, meaning only one company makes a given design.
ES&S’ ExpressVote XL design was selected by the county’s Board of Elections in June as the replacement for the county’s current machines.
Confusion over interest rates comes at the same time that the Department of State has issued its re-examination report on the ExpressVote XL, a move spurred by a petition from supporters of several voting security advocacy groups.
Those groups have claimed that the ExpressVote XL is vulnerable to tampering for the same reason that the county selected the machines: They’re an all-in-one ballot-marking device.
In selecting the machines this year, county officials said they preferred the ExpressVote XL over systems in which ballots were marked by hand, or by a separate marking machine, and then fed into an electronic scanner.
Hand-marking and/or moving ballots between machines opens the door for more user error, officials said.
The ExpressVote XL instead has users make their selections on a touch-screen. The machine then prints the voter’s selections on a paper card, which is fed behind a window through which the user can view and verify the accuracy of the paper record.
Once the voter hits a button to confirm, the ballot card is fed into a storage container. The machines thus keep the touch-screen interface and single-step process of the county’s current electronic machines, but also allow for an auditable paper trail, a requirement the state has mandated counties have in place for the 2020 presidential primary.
The petition to have the state reexamine the machines was filed in July and supported by Free Speech For People, National Election Defense Coalition, and Citizens for Better Elections.
The groups make 10 claims of possible violations of state election requirements that occur with the ExpressVote XL. Only three of the 10 claims are directly addressed in the Department of State report. The others “amount to purely legal arguments” that would not be changed by re-examining the machine itself.
The most serious claim is the assertion that the ExpressVote XL is constructed so that, after the printed ballot card is verified by the voter, it passes back through the printer head on its way to the storage container.
If the machine was tampered with, paper ballots could have extra marks added after being confirmed by the voter, the petitioners claim.
ES&S maintains that the print head must lift out of the way in order for the paper card to go into the collection box, rendering it impossible for marks to be made after the voter confirms their ballot.
The Department of State wrote in its report that “during the examination of the system it was observed that the location of the print head, after the initial print, allows the summary record to pass to the collection bin without making contact with the print head again during the vote summary record deposit process.”
Were the machine to be doctored for a second print, election staff would hear it, the department wrote.
“The examiners also carefully evaluated the voting process to identify any distinct cues during the printing process and observed that the printing process was audible and thus detectable,” the department wrote. “Hence, a successful attempt to activate the printer to print on the vote summary record after the voter verifies his or her selections would be heard.”
Examiners were also unable to modify the bar codes on the ballot cards after the initial print to an extent that the machine recorded votes that did not match the selections printed in text on the ballot cards, the department wrote.
The other two issues addressed in the report are claims that the ExpressVote XL violates voter secrecy laws.
The first claim notes that ballot cards are deposited in the ballot box in chronological order, meaning that a poll worker could track who voted for whom using the voter numbers in the poll book.
Poll workers themselves should not be opening the ballot containers, the department said in its report, and further instructed that staff at the county election office “commingle” — i.e., shuffle — the ballots after removal from the container.
The second claim notes that, in order to spoil a ballot if a voter determines that they made the wrong selection, a poll worker must enter the voting booth and punch in a code to pull the ballot card out of the machine.
The department wrote that poll worker training must “emphasize the need to obscure any view of the paper vote summary record during the process of spoiling the record.”
These two additional conditions — shuffling the ballots and ensuring voter privacy — are not a significant issue, Salzarulo said.
“It’s really no different than what we do now, we’ll just have more ballots,” she said. “It’s common-sense poll worker training which we give them anyway.”
Governor Tom Wolf announced last year that the DoS would de-certify any voting machines that did not meet the state’s new paper trail requirements by the 2020 primary, part of an elections security push.
After tussling with the state legislature on how to fund the replacement, Wolf announced earlier this year that $90 million in bonds would be floated through the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority to cover 60 percent of counties’ voting machine purchase costs—although the state match does not include the cost of interest, Best said.
Counties have been told that the bond approval is imminent, Hertzler said, possibly as soon as this month.
The county has been told that it will need to place an order by the end of the month in order to ensure that machines arrive by December 1, according to Salzarulo.
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