A state mandate has put pressure on the state’s 67 counties to adopt voting machines that supply a paper backup. The options are limited and will come at a cost to voters.
(TNS) — The only plan that matters when it comes to replacing Erie County's voting machines is the backup plan.
The county's 750 voting machines likely have two years to four years of life left in them, but they need to be replaced. And soon.
A state mandate requires that all voting machines that will be used in the 2020 presidential election create a paper backup that can be audited in case of mechanical error or election tampering. Erie County's voting machines don't have that feature.
That's put pressure on many of the state's 67 counties to foot the bill for what is currently an unfunded mandate.
For Erie County to meet the mandate, it will likely cost taxpayers $1.5 million to $3 million, said Doug Smith, Erie County's clerk of elections.
"Council members have been provided some firsthand looks at some of the different systems that are out there — though most of them have tended to be in the paper arena," Smith said, referring to meetings held in 2018 with different voting system vendors. "It was a wholly unfamiliar area for most of us. It's definitely new territory for us. The next step's going to be to compare them more specifically and see which one brings with it the most advantages and provides the best value for the cost."
Erie County Council members, who make up the county's Board of Elections, have yet to reach a decision about replacing voting machines. Their options will be limited when they do.
Counties can only choose from state- and federally-certified systems. Pennsylvania, to date, has certified three different machines. Two other machines are undergoing testing and a sixth is expected to be submitted for testing soon.
Those systems will be on display when the Pennsylvania Department of State holds its New Voting Systems Expo in Erie from 4 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 29 at Blasco Library, 160 E. Front St. The public is encouraged to attend. The expo was originally scheduled for Nov. 28 but was canceled because of poor weather conditions.
"We were already weighing the possibility of replacing voting systems statewide because the current systems are aging," Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren said. "Many of them have operating systems that are no longer supported by the manufacturer, or soon will not be supported."
After the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported that Russian hackers tried to access the voter databases of Pennsylvania and other states ahead of the 2016 election.
In response, Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018 ordered voting machines throughout the state be replaced before the 2020 election with ones that leave a paper trail and therefore can be easily audited. Acting Secretary of State Robert Torres later announced that all counties must have the new systems selected by Dec. 31, 2019.
"The voting systems/machines were not the target of that widely publicized 2016 hacking attempt," Murren said, "but that situation drove home the need for new machines that include the latest security features as well as offering increased resiliency — the ability to more quickly recover from a cyber incident."
The state has $14.15 million of funding from the 2002 Help America Vote Act available, but it has not yet allocated that funding to any county. Erie County's share of that money could be $600,000, officials have said.
The estimate for the upgrade has varied greatly over the past year, said Smith, noting that at one time the county was looking at an expense ranging from $8 million to $10 million. It's likely to cost much less.
Still, the mandate doesn't sit well with many county officials across the state, including Erie County Council chairman Fiore Leone, who has repeatedly railed against the state about unfunded orders. Leone said he believes the current technology is serving its purpose and what the state wants counties to adopt could be "a step backward," he said.
"The cost of it is always substantial," he said. "We're talking millions of dollars based on the fact the state is saying that it is a mandated service. I don't know that as of right now the machines we have aren't performing as we expect. I believe they are performing as the community would expect. There isn't any problem with those machines."
Leone said he wants to the county board of elections to hold multiple public hearings on the matter before a decision is reached on technology.
Lori Dolan of the League of Women Voters of Erie County said the nonpartisan voter advocacy group wants to partner with the county on such meetings, which would provide voters the chance to learn more about a new voting system and even try out the technology. The League of Women Voters only supports voting systems that employ a voter-verifiable paper ballot or another paper record.
Smith noted that voting machines themselves, including those used in Erie County, aren't susceptible to hacking the same way a voter database is because they are "not connected to the internet." And though the machines used in Erie County do not leave a voter-verifiable paper trail, they do include several features that secure and back up data that can be recovered if necessary.
The machines are tested before every election and then sealed before being transported to the county's 149 polling places.
Erie County bought its 750 touchscreen voting machines — the iVotronic, made by Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Nebraska — in early 2006 to replace machines that used a lever or punch card. The current machines were first used in the primary of that year.
Smith said it is likely that Erie County voters in the future will cast their votes on a paper ballot that would be scanned into a machine, which would then tally votes at each precinct. Options such as a touchscreen that also records votes on a viewable paper roll are also available, but would be more costly, he said.
Asked about potential vulnerabilities of a paper system, Smith said he's confident the process will be secure and not prone to human error in part because manufacturers have established protocol and have implemented technology to better determine voter intent. One such vendor, Clear Ballot, displayed its system's capabilities to county officials in 2018.
"Somebody maybe put a checkmark over the circle," Smith said. "Somebody else circled the circle. Somebody else filled it in nicely. Somebody else filled it in sloppy. Every single vote can be reproduced and in that way. They have an interesting way of talking about it today. They call it 'pulling the needles out of the haystack.'"
To date, only Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania has bought new voting machines. County commissioners in August approved spending $265,215 for the Unisyn Open Elect System from Akron, Ohio-based Election IQ. They received a guarantee from the state that the county would be reimbursed its share of remaining federal funds from the Help America Vote Act — about $41,000.
It bought 45 machines, one for each of its voting precincts and a couple backups. The machines produce and validate paper ballots. They are also accessible to disabled voters, therefore satisfying Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
The county also purchased three bulk scanners that are part of the Unisyn Open Elect System, two of which were in use when the system debuted in Susquehanna County during the Nov. 6 general election. Those scanners are used to count ballots, including absentee and provisional ballots, and to conduct recounts.
Susquehanna County only required three scanners because it does not count ballots in individual precincts as many counties, including Erie, do.
"That's just more equipment that you have to buy and it can make things a little bit more costly," Election Bureau Director SarahRae Sisson said.
Susquehanna County has 24,924 registered voters — almost an eighth of Erie County's 191,864 registered voters.
It previously used a pen-and-paper system, Sisson said, so commissioners' decision to upgrade equipment wasn't driven by Wolf's mandate, but rather by the fact the equipment had reached its end of useful life. Commissioners were prepared to take on the expense, she added.
"I don't envy those counties that don't know what they're going to do," Sisson said.
©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.