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Days after city and state watchdogs criticize process, decision on Philly’s new voting machines hits road bump

Philadelphia's city commissioners will not vote on a new voting system Wednesday.

L-R: City Commissioners Anthony Clark, Lisa Deeley, and Al Schmidt during a public hearing on voting machines on Jan. 10, 2019.
L-R: City Commissioners Anthony Clark, Lisa Deeley, and Al Schmidt during a public hearing on voting machines on Jan. 10, 2019.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia city commissioners have postponed a vote scheduled for Wednesday on acquiring a new voting-machine system, delaying a process that has drawn criticism for its speed and lack of transparency.

The commissioners were awaiting a confidential committee’s evaluation of bids to supply new systems — which are required — but had not received a final recommendation by late Tuesday, resulting in the delay.

“The selection committee made its recommendations to the Procurement Department for additional negotiations of price and other terms,” the commissioners said in a statement Tuesday night.

The city’s selection process has come under fire, with city and state officials joining activists in raising concerns about transparency and speed.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart had asked the commissioners to delay the vote to receive more public input. And on Monday, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale held a news conference to express his concerns about ethics and the selection timeline.

“Now, I understand the need to move quickly, but I don’t think there was a full accounting of this process,” he said, adding that the city’s request for proposals appeared written to favor one vendor.

The commissioners say they are simply following Gov. Tom Wolf’s directive that counties quickly upgrade their voting machines to safer systems that produce a paper trail. As for transparency, they say they are adhering to the city’s procurement process, which requires the confidential committee to make a recommendation to them.

“It is not an ideal situation for us to be in. It is a very sped-up timeline, but it is a timeline that is the result of what the governor has asked each county in Pennsylvania to do,” said Lisa Deeley, who chairs the commissioners.

Last year, Wolf’s Department of State ordered voting systems to leave a paper trail. County election officials across the state, while broadly agreeing with the idea of upgrading their systems, have said they need more money and time. Philadelphia election officials said that they were preparing to upgrade machines after the 2020 election, but that Wolf’s directive forced them to scramble to find funding and accelerate a selection process that would have included more public input.

Deeley has said the cost of the machines could be as high as $50 million to $60 million, though that includes up-front and operating costs over multiple years. It’s unclear what the new systems will cost because they vary depending on the type chosen and the bids are secret. The city has $22 million in city funding and an additional $1.7 million in federal and state funding.

The city put out a request for proposals in November and received six bids. Since then, following the city’s “best value” procurement process, the competing systems have been undergoing review by a selection committee whose makeup is confidential. That 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.

In a letter last week to the three commissioners and others, Rhynhart called for public demonstrations of new voting machines, an additional hearing that includes a ballot-security expert, and the rationale behind the choice of voting system to be made public.

“It’s being done without public input, and this gets into how government should interact with the public. And I think it should be more transparent than how it’s been going on,” Rhynhart said. Before the delay was announced, she had called for the commissioners to wait up to a month to take more feedback before making their decision.

DePasquale raised similar concerns about the timeline Monday but said he was also worried about undue influence from election vendors. While he said there is no evidence of Philadelphia election officials acting improperly, companies have lobbied Luzerne County and others, leading him to believe Philadelphia would be a target as well.

“It is hard for me to imagine that you would attempt to lobby Luzerne County and have zero interest in lobbying the City of Philadelphia,” he said.

DePasquale and Rhynhart each raised concerns that the city had slanted its request for proposals toward one vendor. Language about having a ballot with all names fitting on one page, as well as the size of the machines, suggests it “was written in a way that favors a digital system, and that’s not the only type of system,” Rhynhart said.

Nick Custodio, deputy commissioner, said those elements were included in the request because of accessibility concerns and Philadelphia’s large candidate pool.

DePasquale asked election officials in each county to report gifts they may have received from vendors, including any meals or trips on a vendor’s dime. The commissioners said they had nothing of that type to report. The only trips taken, such as by Commissioner Al Schmidt in 2013 to a vendor’s headquarters, were paid for out of pocket or reimbursed by the city, they wrote to DePasquale’s office.

About 25 activists held a noontime rally Tuesday at City Hall and plan to attend Wednesday’s meeting of the city commissioners.