Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf was right to aim big when he pledged to upgrade the commonwealth’s antiquated voting machines by the 2020 election. Now Wolf, the Department of State, and county officials must work together to launch a commonwealth-wide plan to teach both voters and poll workers about the new voting systems. Voters deserve it, Election Day workers require it, and the integrity of our democratic process depends on it.
Think of these new machines as you would a new smartphone. Just as we expect operating instructions for a new phone, we should go further to demand it for the devices that uphold our sacred right to vote. The stakes are too high not to.
We can’t afford to have voters who show up at the polls confused about the machines that solidify their voices in our democracy. And one voter’s problems ripple throughout the system, increasing wait times, overwhelming poll workers, and causing would-be voters to walk away from long lines without casting a ballot.
Voters deserve more than a flimsy user manual. Commonwealth and county officials should develop and publicly promote online voter tutorials and schedule machine demonstrations at elections offices, town halls, community events, and libraries so voters can test-drive new equipment well before Election Day.
The new voter experience will vary according to county. In Philadelphia, poll workers will check in voters using an electronic tablet instead of looking up names on paper. Then, voters will take a blank paper ballot, insert it into a new machine, and cast their votes on a touch-screen device that will mark the paper ballot for them. Voters will be able to verify their votes on the paper ballot before it is submitted into the machine to be counted.
Officials shouldn’t rely solely on snail mail to update voters about the process. They should reach voters where they are — on their cell phones — with digital public-service announcements on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Officials should work with nonpartisan advocacy groups to target voter education to historically disenfranchised communities, including low-income voters, people of color, voters with limited English, and those with disabilities.
Meanwhile, officials must redouble their efforts to tackle Pennsylvania’s shortage of trained poll workers with a full-throttled campaign to ensure every polling place is staffed.
Just as we expect IT workers to be able to fix a cell phone, so should we hold our poll workers to minimum standards when being tasked with safeguarding our democracy. Poll workers should be fluent in the new voting technology and keep long lines at bay. They must be able to tackle the glitches that come with new technology and be prepared with backup plans so that all voters have a chance to cast a ballot privately, securely, and independently.
The experience casting a ballot for many voters will be different, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult.
Election workers should be able to answer voters’ questions deftly and quickly, particularly for voters with disabilities and non-English speakers, so they have fair and equal access to the ballot.
Here’s the good news: Gov. Wolf, the secretary of state, and county election officials can act now, before the April 2020 primary, to reverse bad trends and ensure free and fair elections all Pennsylvanians can take pride in.
Our democracy functions best when all voices are heard. New voting machines are just the end of the beginning of this process; the hard work must continue.
As officials remove the wrappers from the shiny new devices, they would be wise to ensure the success of their investment by making sure we all know how to use them.