The warnings have been intensifying. The threat of outside interference in our elections is real. With its overwhelming Democratic majority, any disruption of Philadelphia’s votes could shift Pennsylvania electoral votes in 2020 and affect who becomes president. That makes Philadelphia a juicy target.
So far, neither the City Commissioners nor the mayor’s administration is taking this threat seriously. Instead, they are defending a flawed decision to purchase the ES&S ExpressVote XL, a voting system that is not only the most vulnerable to hacking and disruption but also by far the most expensive choice, to the tune of $30 million up front.
The mayor’s administration has put enormous effort into propping up a process that was broken from the beginning. Meanwhile critics include Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, and citizen advocates led by Protect Our Vote Philly.
We’ve run out of time to choose a better system for this November, but there’s still time to do it right for the 2020 primary and general election.
Just before the Feb. 20 vote to approve the selection, Rhynhart joined many citizens to urge the commissioners not to approve a purchase that was tainted by a biased and improper selection process. They disregarded her warning. Two of the three commissioners approved the ES&S machines.
Doing precisely the job that the people elected her to do, Rhynhart mounted an investigation into the procurement process. While the Law Department fought her subpoenas, Rhynhart announced in April that unless she found that the procurement process was done properly, she would not release a dollar of city money. Mayor Jim Kenney’s response: “I don’t know what her problem is.”
All of the city departments involved — Finance, Procurement, Law — answer directly to the mayor. Now, Rhynhart’s investigation is bringing ugly truths into the light. Last month’s board meeting was prompted by her revelation that the contract was voidable because ES&S failed to disclose its lobbyists’ activities, including campaign contributions to commissioners. It was the first piece of what promises to be a bounty of damning evidence. Once again, Rhynhart urged the board to wait, this time for her full report. Once again, her warning went unheeded. In a room packed with angry citizens, the interim board voted to “maintain” the contract, and attempted to legitimize the Feb. 20 decision.
The Law Department, representing both the commissioners and the city, has lent legal cover to these actions. It appears to prefer a situation where, if the funding is blocked, ES&S can sue for breach of contract and get paid through a judgment or settlement. The mayor’s spokesperson admitted as much, saying, “If any city official, including the controller, blocks or interferes with a payment that is legally due, that official risks causing costly legal liabilities not only for the city but also for that official.”
It would be an end-run around the controller and the City Charter, if it works. Instead of taking the opportunity to get out of this noxious deal, the board accepted the argument offered by the Procurement Department: that large costs have already been incurred. After digging us deeply into this hole, they think the smart move is to keep digging.
They’re wrong. It is time to stop digging and get out. The administration must reverse course and abandon this poor decision, so that Philadelphia can properly choose a better system and use it in the April primary. Eight months is plenty of time, even for a large city. Others have done it in much less. This could be a defining moment for Philadelphia and for the country. Our votes are far too precious to endanger. The quickest, cleanest way out of this hole is through the Mayor’s Office. Void the contract, do the selection right, and keep Philadelphia’s votes — and our democracy — secure.