Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly city controller says she will block payment for controversial new voting machines

“The investigation needs to run its course. ... There’s too much smoke not to investigate this,” Rebecca Rhynhart said.

One of the new voting machines that features touchscreens with paper confirmations is shown on April 30, 2019.
One of the new voting machines that features touchscreens with paper confirmations is shown on April 30, 2019.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart says she will not approve payment for new voting machines that will cost the city tens of millions of dollars.

“I’m deeply concerned about the legality of this process,” she said in a statement Tuesday night, “and as city controller, I will not release $1 of payment while these questions go unanswered.”

Until her office completes an investigation of the voting-machine selection process, including accusations that it was biased to favor electronic voting machines over paper ones that voters fill out manually, Rhynhart said she won’t sign off on payment. Her approval is one of several that are required along the way when the city purchases new equipment or services.

“We need a pause to say, ‘What is going on here?’ ” Rhynhart said in an interview Wednesday morning. “And I’m not going to be releasing any payment until it’s very clear that all procurement rules and city processes were followed in this procurement, because right now I have doubts.”

It’s unclear what would happen if Rhynhart refuses the payment after machines are delivered and implementation begins. Dozens have already arrived.

Alan Butkovitz, former city controller and current mayoral candidate, said the city solicitor would step in if the controller refuses to approve payment, citing times when he threatened to block funding but was told he had to sign off.

Former City Controller Jonathan Saidel said the controller can stop city payments to vendors only in certain situations, including if there is suspicion of fraud or if an agency has overspent its budget.

“The controller is not supposed to unilaterally stop a payment if they don’t like the vendor or don’t like the issue,” he said. "You can’t just willy-nilly stop payments because you’re politically against something the mayor did or some agency did.”

Rhynhart said her position was proper because it falls squarely within her responsibilities: She is concerned about the legality of the process, and can’t sign off on payment until she ascertains that the entire contract and selection process are aboveboard.

“The investigation needs to run its course, and we need to get to the bottom of what’s going on here,” Rhynhart said. “There’s too much smoke not to investigate this.”

For months, Rhynhart has criticized and questioned the city commissioners’ decision to purchase touchscreen voting machines, the ExpressVote XL system from the vendor ES&S. Along with state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and a group of advocates for hand-marked paper ballots, Rhynhart has criticized the voting-system selection process as too rushed; opaque; and biased toward electronic machines instead of alternatives, specifically paper ballots that voters manually fill out.

Advocates and many security experts say that hand-marked paper ballots are cheaper, more secure, and less prone to problems than electronic machines and that they instill trust in the public. Disability-rights advocates disagree, saying electronic machines are more accessible.

New voting machines were selected Feb. 20 by two of the three current commissioners, Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt, after a fast-tracked and secret selection process in which a committee of unnamed city employees evaluated proposals from vendors and made recommendations to the commissioners. Deeley has defended that process as intentionally rushed to meet Gov. Tom Wolf’s directive to purchase new machines by next year and intentionally secretive to protect it from outside influence, in accordance with city rules.

Last month, Rhynhart subpoenaed the office for documents related to that process. She persuaded the third commissioner, who is retiring, to oppose the new voting machines. (Two judges, who have replaced the other commissioners while they run for reelection, say they will not overturn the decision.)

Nick Custodio, deputy city commissioner under Deeley, said Rhynhart’s threat would not stop the office from proceeding.

“The Controller’s Office has not been in contact with our office about any decision,” he wrote in an email Wednesday morning. “Regardless, we are not going to allow ourselves to be distracted from preparing for the May Primary and the transition to the new voting system in November.” (The new machines won’t be used in the May 21 primary. )

The commissioners received 83 of the new systems Monday, Custodio said, “so that we have a supply for our public outreach efforts and for hands-on training programs for our staff and poll workers starting early this summer.”

The machines have not been paid for because a contract has not been finalized, said mayoral spokesperson Mike Dunn.

Staff writers Chris Brennan and Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.