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Voters and poll workers had issues with Montgomery County’s new paper ballots. Here’s the plan moving forward.

More paper ballot scanners and improved poll worker training are among the changes for ensuring smoother elections in Montgomery County moving forward.

Mark Macekura from the Montgomery County election board feeds a paper ballet into a scanner.
Mark Macekura from the Montgomery County election board feeds a paper ballet into a scanner.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photograph

Montgomery County officials heard an earful after the primary election in May.

Some voters and poll workers reported confusion and difficulties using the new paper ballot system, while others were skeptical of its security and privacy. Among the concerns: Ballots could be seen by other voters or poll workers; polling places were not set up efficiently, leading to long lines or crowding; poll workers did not seem to know how to use the system or help voters; warning messages drew attention to a voter’s ballot and felt invasive.

After the election, officials said they would make changes to improve the voting experience and increase public confidence in the new system. They then began a months-long effort to solicit feedback.

They heard from more than 700 people via paper and online surveys, letters, calls, emails, social media messages, and conversations, said Lee Soltysiak, the county’s chief operating officer and clerk of its election board. Officials also used reports of issues from election day itself.

“Considering the size of the task, and that voters in the county have voted the same way, on the same system, for 20 years, we anticipated a certain amount of growing pains,” Soltysiak said. “So that’s why we sought the feedback.”

What happened

Montgomery County’s previous voting machines had been used since 1996; it was already time for an upgrade, officials said. Then, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all 67 counties to replace their systems with more-secure ones that leave a paper trail that can be hand-counted and audited.

Montgomery County was ahead of the curve, having set aside funding, and purchased a hand-marked paper ballot system. Voters fill in the bubbles on a large piece of paper, then feed the paper into a scanner that counts their votes. (Electronic machines are available for voters who request them, including voters with disabilities.)

» READ MORE: Why some Pa. counties are struggling with state order to upgrade voting machines

But there are always going to be bumps in the road with a new system, county and state officials said. Voters reported a variety of issues, and some said they were concerned that problems would be worse in 2020, with the higher turnout of a presidential election.

» READ MORE: In Montgomery County, some voters concerned by new paper ballots

County officials vowed to purchase more equipment and increase training for poll workers, among other steps.

What’s changing

More precinct scanners

One reason for longer lines than usual, voters said, was that some precincts did not have enough scanners.

With hand-marked paper ballots, many voters can fill out ballots at once, but the chokepoint comes when they are scanned. If reading the ballots takes too long, lines form. That means voters who have already waited once to check in and once to fill out a ballot have to wait a third time to actually cast it.

Some extra scanners will show up in a few polling places this November, Soltysiak said, but the real increase will come in 2020, to match the higher turnout of a presidential election.

The number and cost of new scanners has not yet been determined, Soltysiak said.

Increased, better poll worker training

The amount of mandatory poll worker training will increase, Soltysiak said, and it will be more specialized. People working with the scanners, for example, will receive more hands-on instruction than before, he said.

Those training sessions will emphasize issues that popped up during the primary election, such as how to physically arrange a polling place and how to help voters without handling their ballots for them.

No more undervote warning

One common complaint from voters was that if they didn’t vote in every race, the scanner would sound an alarm, and poll workers would announce that they had “undervoted.” It’s a feature designed to flag accidents, but it meant an additional delay in the scanning process, and voters said they felt uncomfortable — as if their privacy was being violated because people around them would learn that they had not filled out their entire ballot.

That warning will be turned off.

Increased physical privacy of the ballot

Several changes relate to the privacy of the paper ballot itself. For one, the number of voters in the voting area will be limited, and polling places will be arranged to minimize the number of people who would be standing or waiting in line near the tables where voters fill out their sheets, Soltysiak said.

There will also be more “privacy folders” available to keep ballots in while walking around and waiting in line.

Spoiled ballots — those with mistakes that need to be thrown out — will also be handled with a new procedure meant to protect voter privacy.

Elections officials will emphasize to voters and poll workers that privacy is a primary concern on Election Day, Soltysiak said. In some cases, poll workers trying to be helpful had taken ballots and scanned them, but that won’t happen in the future, he said.

“Unless you request the assistance, there is never a need for you to hand your voted ballot to a poll worker for any reason,” Soltysiak said.