One-third of Pennsylvania counties taking action to replace voting systems by 2020

By: - March 27, 2019 6:30 am

Counties across Pennsylvania are on track to replace their voting machines ahead of the 2020 primary elections, but some local officials still have concerns about how they’ll pay for them.

Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told a Senate committee Tuesday that a third of Pennsylvania’s counties have taken action to upgrade their voting systems by April 2020. That follows a 2018 Department of State mandate that all counties replace voting machines with ones that leave a paper trail.

The machines must generate a paper record of voters’ ballots, which could be counted manually in the event of an audit. Security experts say that such systems are less vulnerable to hacking.

Boockvar reassured senators Tuesday that the state’s current machines are reliable, but vulnerable to tampering. Pennsylvania is one of only 12 states across the country and the only swing state using electronic systems that don’t leave a paper trail, she said.

County commissioners on Tuesday called on the General Assembly to increase the funding for counties to replace voting machines, saying that property tax increases would be inevitable if counties have to bear the cost of machine upgrades.

In his most recent budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf pledged $75 million over five years to reimburse counties for the machines, which are expected to cost $125 million total. The first $15 million appropriation would come as part of the 2019-20 budget.

“The governor has already committed $14.15 million in federal and state funding to counties for the new voting systems,” according to a press release from the State department.

Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said that even if the new appropriation and all subsequent ones are approved by the General Assembly, many county governments are still concerned about the remaining cost of the equipment upgrades.

“If it’s an issue enough to mandate, it is important enough to fund,” said Joe Kantz, chairman of the Snyder County board of commissioners. “Anything less than 100 percent funding for these machines will absolutely result in property tax increase for most counties across the commonwealth.”

Dauphin County Commissioner Jeff Haste called on the Legislature to approve an allocation from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to cover the upgrades in full.

A Wolf spokesperson suggested Tuesday that the Rainy Day proposal was dead on arrival.

“Both growing the Rainy Day Fund and securing our elections are major priorities for the governor and important for the commonwealth,” spokesperson J.J. Abbott said. “We believe we can accomplish both without sacrificing one or the other.”

After the hearing, Hill said the cost of new machines would vary for each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, depending on how many precincts they maintain and what technology they decide to purchase.

Hill said that county election officials will have to weigh multiple trade-offs when selecting machines that meet Department of State specifications. Some machines may have a low up-front price tag and high long-term operating costs, he said. Others may require accessory equipment.

The State department has certified five voting systems and is in the process of testing a sixth that counties can choose from. In Philadelphia, city commissioners selected a touchscreen system over the objections of a vocal group of advocates who support hand-marked paper ballots.

The subject of Tuesday’s hearing was a Senate bill that would stall the current mandate and require governors seek General Assembly approval before moving forward with similar ones in the future.

Hill said that the County Commissioners Association supports the concept of the bill and its aim to create more stringent requirements for mandates related to elections.

But he thinks it unlikely that the bill would affect the voting system upgrades that are currently underway. Even if it passes through the House and the Senate this year, Hill speculated that Wolf would probably decline to sign a bill that undermines a mandate his administration issued.

“The horse is pretty far out of the barn,” Hill said.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.