Philadelphia Says New Electronic Poll Books Don’t Work

The city planned to use the new poll books this November to reduce human error and facilitate faster voting processes, but city officials say that there were several problems with the books during a recent test election

by Jonathan Lai, The Philadelphia Inquirer / September 18, 2019
Philadelphia, Pa. Shutterstock/S.Borisov

 (TNS) — Philadelphia was supposed to use new, electronic poll books in its election this November, allowing poll workers to search for voters on an iPad and sign them in electronically, rather than use thick paper books.

The change was supposed to reduce human error, and to make checking in voters faster and easier. City officials promised it would to help troubleshoot problems, such as providing correct information to voters who show up in the wrong polling place. It was supposed to, eventually, provide real-time turnout numbers from every polling site across the city.

Turns out the system was not ready for prime time.

Instead, “the city observed several problems with KNOWiNK’s pollbook system” during a test election conducted last month, the city’s Acting Chief Administrative Officer, Stephanie Tipton, said in a letter Tuesday to the acting board of elections.

“The observed problems included failures to properly connect to voting machine printers and inadequate election night reporting. Upon a review of the Pilot Election results, a project management team … concluded that it does not have confidence that KNOWiNK’s pollbook system will be able to perform reliably for this November’s election,” Tipton wrote. “We believe the City should not use this electronic pollbook system in an election unless there is complete confidence that it will perform reliably.”

Two of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt, voted in February to select St. Louis, Mo.-based KNOWiNK as its vendor for “e-pollbooks,” a decision that was largely overshadowed by the simultaneous award of a controversial contract for new voting machines. At several times during and after the selection process, Deeley said she hoped voters would appreciate the electronic poll book system and that they would help the commissioners run elections more efficiently and respond more quickly when issues arise.

The contract was signed in June: Philadelphia would pay $2,659,400, the lowest bid, to KNOWiNK for 3,550 iPads and accessories, including software.

Nick Custodio, deputy city commissioner under Deeley, said the city “has not been invoiced for anything” and thus “has not paid them anything.” He declined further comment on the letter.

Since then, city elections and technology workers have been quietly receiving and testing the iPads at the same time as the ES&S ExpressVote XL voting machines. The systems were used during a mock election Aug. 21, which is when the problems were discovered, Tipton wrote.

A weekly meeting of the current board of elections — including two city judges who replaced Deeley and Schmidt as they run for reelection — is scheduled for Wednesday morning. The poll books will likely come up.

With less than two months until the municipal election, Tipton urged the board to abandon its plan to use the e-pollbook system this time.

“The City should instead continue to use its traditional paper pollbooks for voter and poll worker check-in,” she wrote. “Those traditional paper pollbooks have been used in Philadelphia elections for over 20 years.”

©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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