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In Montgomery County, some voters concerned by new paper ballots

“I know the whole idea was to establish a paper trail, but in my way of thinking, they did it backwards," said one voter, one of thousands to use Montgomery County's new system Tuesday.

Mark Macekura, from the election board, feeds a paper ballet into a new scanner. Montgomery County has received new voting machines it will begin using in the primary.
Mark Macekura, from the election board, feeds a paper ballet into a new scanner. Montgomery County has received new voting machines it will begin using in the primary.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

A Horsham Township couple took their morning walk to the polls Tuesday, cast their ballots, and spent the trip home talking about their concerns with Montgomery County’s new voting system.

“I know the whole idea was to establish a paper trail, but in my way of thinking, they did it backwards," said John Janiszewski, who voted in the primary election with his wife, Randee, around 7:30 a.m. at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Maple Glen.

Janiszewski, 68, was one of thousands of voters who turned out Tuesday to 425 polling places across Montgomery County and used its new paper ballot system. The county is one of the first to respond to Gov. Tom Wolf’s mandate that all counties purchase new voting machines that leave a paper trail in advance of the 2020 election. After some delays due to the partial federal government shutdown, the county began testing the machines this winter.

Its new system requires most voters to fill out the ballot with a pen, shading in bubbles the way one would on a standardized test, and then feed the paper into a scanner that tabulates the votes. In the past, residents voted with electronic, push-button machines the county bought in 1996.

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Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its election board, said he had expected there to be a natural learning curve Tuesday morning, with poll workers and voters getting used to a new system. He was grateful for those who took time to learn how the process works, he said, noting many voters were grateful, too, for a more secure system.

“There are a lot of folks that are pleased, if not relieved, that Montgomery County finally has a verified paper ballot,” Soltysiak said.

Janiszewski, an engineer and registered Democrat, was not one of them. He said he worried about several aspects of the new system, including the possibility that a poll worker or other person could see his ballot while he scanned it.

While it took him and his wife only five minutes to vote Tuesday, he said he was concerned about wait times at the scanner during busier voting times, such as the after-work hours, or during elections that see higher turnout.

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At the Upper Dublin Sports Center, Prashant Rushi, 35, of Ambler, said it took him 20 minutes to vote around 7 a.m.

“This process isn’t going to fare well,” he said. “Imagine what it’s going to happen during the peak times.”

Rushi, a Democrat who works in health-care licensing, said he worries that in future elections people will ditch long lines and not vote because of the new system.

“Instead of going backward to paper ballots,” he said, "they should’ve gone forward to digital.”

Afternoon voter Thomas Wagner, a 67-year-old welder living in Plymouth Township, was also not a fan.

“Cardboard boxes. I’m impressed,” he said sarcastically. “We’re going back to basics. This is crazy.”

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He said using the new machines was “a little complicated, because it’s out of the ordinary.” He had to concentrate, he said.

He said he was “forewarned” by neighbors who had voted earlier in the day.

“They said, `Bring a lunch. It might be a while.' ”

David Hartman, a 59-year-old Plymouth Township resident, volunteered at three local polling places to stump for school board candidates and said he heard mixed reactions to the machines.

The voting machine said he had “under voted,” because he didn’t vote for a district attorney candidate. But Hartman is a Republican and there was no Republican candidate on the ballot for DA.

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Misunderstandings like that “could slow things down” during the next election, he said.

“I’m worried for the general election more than this,” he said. “If it’s a big election where a lot of people turn out, there’s going to be a lot of people waiting. I don’t know how they’re going to handle that.”

Soltysiak said the county had handled any issues that predictably arose as folks got used to the new system.

As for privacy concerns, he said voters shouldn’t worry.

“The privacy of voters’ ballots are of paramount concern,” he said. “That, for sure, is an issue we’ve planned for and trained for," including by instructing workers not to hover near the scanner.

He said in future elections, ones that historically have higher turnout, additional equipment will be brought in to prevent bottlenecks and minimize wait times.

Inquirer staff writer Michaelle Bond contributed to this article.