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As election officials delay Philly voting machines decision, activists press for answers

Activists for paper ballots are cheering the city’s postponement of a decision on new voting machines, but they remain frustrated by the process.

City Commissioner Lisa Deeley speaks with Stephen Strahs, an advocate for hand-marked paper ballots, after a public meeting Wednesday.
City Commissioner Lisa Deeley speaks with Stephen Strahs, an advocate for hand-marked paper ballots, after a public meeting Wednesday.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

Advocates of paper ballots cheered the news late Tuesday that the Philadelphia city commissioners have delayed their selection of new voting machines, but found themselves frustrated Wednesday when officials said they had no new information to provide.

“The only thing we know now is that our message, to some degree, has been heard, otherwise I do believe that we would have gotten a decision today and probably not the one that would have been most appropriate and prudent,” said Stephen Strahs, one of a core group of activists who have shown up for meetings and held rallies. “But where this goes from here, I have no idea. My hope is that there’s going to be a process of reconsideration.”

Strahs and a handful of others attended a commissioners meeting Wednesday — for which a decisive vote had been scheduled — but left without any clarity on a process they say has been opaque. The commissioners did not say anything about the machines when pressed by the activists on the decision timeline.

For weeks, the activists have pushed for the commissioners to choose a system in which voters fill out a paper ballot and then scan it. That kind of system is more secure and easier to use, they say, than a touchscreen system that would create a paper trail by printing out a list after voters make their selections.

In recent days, those calls have attracted the attention of city and state watchdogs who said the machine replacement process has moved too quickly and been too opaque.

Late Tuesday, the commissioners announced they would not vote on a new system at Wednesday’s meeting because a confidential selection committee had not yet sent them its final recommendations.

The commissioners said they are caught between the city’s procurement process and a directive from Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of State that counties replace their machines.

To avoid the chaos of rolling out a new system in the 2020 presidential election, the commissioners are planning to have new machines in place by the municipal election this November.

Last November, the city put out a request for proposals for new voting systems and received six bids. The selection committee, which includes representatives from the commissioners, City Council, the mayor’s office, the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, and the office of the city’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, must score the systems and provide recommendations to the commissioners.

New voting systems, which will be in use for years, will cost up to $50 million to $60 million in upfront and operating costs over several years, according to the commissioners’ estimates. The city has $22 million in city funding and an additional $1.7 million in federal and state funding.

In their statement Tuesday, the commissioners said the delay came because the selection committee had negotiated with multiple vendors but made recommendations to the “Procurement Department for additional negotiations of price and other terms.” The commissioners declined to provide details.

Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the city procurement commissioner is reviewing the recommendations.

“It will come back at some point and we will vote,” Lisa Deeley, chair of the commissioners, said after the meeting, echoing the commissioners’ Tuesday statement. “That’s not very specific, but unfortunately, as you well know, we are following the city’s best-value procurement rules. I sound like a broken record, I’m sorry.”

Deeley said the delay had nothing to do with criticism from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale that the process is too rushed and secretive, nor from activist pressure.

“To be clear, it is because it is all part of the ongoing process," Deeley said.

No timeline has been set for a vote, she said.