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Paper And Plastic: Counties Get Ready To Upgrade Voting Machines

Zane Swanger tapped on the screen of a voting machine to make his elections choices, including a write-in candidate, before printing out his ballot.

“OK, so it won’t even let me vote for overvotes, so good.”

Swanger was testing out one of the new voting systems that Pennsylvanians could be using in elections starting next year. He's the director of elections in Mifflin County, and that was third time he’s seen the equipment.

The state is holding five voting systems expos, including that one in State College. There are different types of machines for poll workers and the public to try out as counties weigh which ones to get.

“I actually made a few mistakes," Swanger said, after casting his ballot. "I didn’t place it in the correct slot. But, it still accepted the vote properly. It's things like that I like to test out to see, because I know voters aren’t going to follow the expected way you’re doing it. You have to expect a different situation may occur."

Mifflin, Centre and 15 other counties in Pennsylvania already use primarily paper ballots, but most counties do not. That is a problem the Pennsylvania Department of State is trying to correct. The state has committed to moving to systems with voter-verifiable paper trails — what some call the gold standard for fair elections.

“It’s really about making sure Pennsylvanians are using the most secure, most auditable, most accessible voting equipment,” said Jonathan Marks, commissioner of the state Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation. He was at the State College demonstration.

The voting equipment most counties use is computerized and about 15 years old.

“I have two phones — I have a personal iPhone and a work iPhone and neither one of them is three years old. So, when you’re talking about computerized equipment, 15 years is a long time,” he said.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. It came after the Bush versus Gore election when the spotlight fell on butterfly ballots, dangling chads and other election problems. The idea was to get rid of old voting systems and set national standards.

“People were looking at computerized voting as a panacea for all of those ills. And they did provide a really good solution for that," Marks said. "Unfortunately, the touch screens also created a controversy around the auditability of elections. So, I think, what we’re going to have in the end, is the perfect combination of technology — we’re not throwing the technology out — but also the auditability of paper.”

So far, Pennsylvania has certified two of the new voting systems, a third is finishing the process and several others are on the way.

Between federal funding and a state match, Pennsylvania has about $14 million available for counties. That won’t be enough to cover the costs. Counties estimate the upgrades will cost about $125 million statewide.

According to the Department of State, Gov. Tom Wolf plans to work with the General Assembly to find ways to help the counties pay for the systems.

Counties get ready

Blair County has been getting ready for the change, putting $1.5 million in a bond. Sarah Seymour, the county’s elections director, said the county started looking for new machines last year. The company that makes their current machines said it would stop offering maintenance for them in 2020.

“We get a lot of feedback from our office, and today that voters, poll workers are looking for that actual paper, to vote on the paper and to have that paper record in case there’s a problem or a recount,” Seymour said during a crowded voting machine demonstration the county held this fall.

Blair County Commissioner Ted Beam said it was important to get input from the public and the poll workers who will be the ones using the machines.

“We would like to have them in place for next year, for November 2019," Beam said. "It would give our poll workers an election to work with them and get used to them prior to the big onslaught of voters that will come with the presidential election in 2020, so we’re aiming for that goal.”

The push for paper

Centre County ditched its touch-screen machines in 2008 and went back to paper ballots. But, even counties that use paper ballots still have to upgrade.

Mary Vollero was one of the local residents who pushed the county to go with paper ballots.

“I was really happy that our state has required a paper ballot, and I’m really hopeful that we’ll have that in time for the next presidential election,” Vollero said.

A poll worker in Unionville, Vollero still has concerns. Some of the machines read a barcode that’s printed on the ballot, rather than reading the mark made by the voter.

“We’re advocating for something we can all read, so there’s no question, there’s no doubt,” Vollero said.

But the Department of State says the use of barcodes on ballots is secure and doesn’t take the place of printed candidate names. Voting systems with bar codes use them to track the election date and precinct, and they also ensure ballots don't get counted more than once. Bar codes, the state says, are printed in addition to not instead of, the printed candidate names the voter picks.

While the idea off Russian meddling in the elections has prompted some worries, the concerns of Matthew Woessner, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Penn State Harrisburg, predate that.

“I’ve been concerned for more than a decade that the move to computer voting systems not only invites mischief, but it invites the fear of mischief, so that even if the voting systems are working exactly as they should, people’s belief that they could be hacked will undermine the democratic process and make the winners seem illegitimate,” Woessner said.

Physical evidence is harder to fake in an election, at least in large quantities, and paper ballots mean the public can see those votes being counted.

“When you move to computer system, you have some nerd like Bill Gates who scans a hard drive and announces who the winner is. There’s nothing that’s open to the public that can show they were reporting real results,” he said.

While some are glad the state is making the change, Governor Wolf’s push to move to paper voting does have opponents. One Republican state senator plans to introduce legislation stopping the state from forcing counties to buy new machines.

Upcoming demonstrations

Centre County will hold a town hall meeting on voting machines, including vendor demonstrations, 6-8 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology in Pleasant Gap.

The state is holding a voting machine expo 4-8 p.m. Dec. 12 at Dickinson College Holland Union Building – Social Hall, 28 N. College St., in Carlisle.

Anne Danahy is a reporter at WPSU. She was a reporter for nearly 12 years at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she earned a number of awards for her coverage of issues including the impact of natural gas development on communities.
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