As Pennsylvania county election officials replace the state’s voting machines in advance of the 2020 election — at an estimated cost of $150 million — they’re anxious for an end to a dispute between Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican lawmakers that has tied up state funding and forced counties to shoulder most of the financial burden.
Wolf announced last month that he would seek $90 million for the machines. However, that prompted the threat of a lawsuit by Republicans in the legislature, and the fate of the funding has become tied to partisan fights over the governor’s authority and significant changes to the electoral system.
So 16 months after Wolf ordered the counties to replace the machines, the only funding available is $14.1 million in mostly federal dollars. No new funding has been secured.
While Harrisburg bickers, county officials say they’re forced to move forward anyway, hoping for reimbursement later.
“They tell us it’s going to work, but we don’t know that. And we’ve been promised a lot, but we still have yet to see it,” said Forrest K. Lehman, elections director for Lycoming County.
“Counties are still operating on the assumption that we’re paying for it on our own dime until we get details,” he said. “Right now, we haven’t heard anything otherwise, other than the governor’s announcement, and it’s been a rocky process.”
The Pennsylvania Department of State expects all 67 counties to have new systems in place by the presidential primary election in April. A department spokesperson said this week that 41 counties have taken some form of official action toward choosing a new system and implementing. Those counties represent 5.25 million of the state’s 8.49 million registered voters, or about three out of five.
Why state funding remains in question
Since Wolf’s order last year, a primary question for counties has been where the money would come from.
Wolf originally proposed a five-year plan to provide $75 million to the counties, which run elections. Republican lawmakers passed a bill that would have given counties $90 million in state funding — but it also would have eliminated the straight-party voting option that Democrats favor, along with other changes to the state’s election system.
Wolf vetoed it and then announced that he would essentially do the same thing: issue $90 million in bonds through the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority (PEDFA). Republicans immediately cried foul, saying the law doesn’t allow him to do that unilaterally.
“If he believed he had those powers, he wouldn’t have asked the General Assembly to provide that funding in the first place,” said Mike Straub, spokesperson for the House Republicans.
A spokesperson for Wolf said the proposal will be presented to the PEDFA board at its Aug. 20 meeting and that the governor’s office doesn’t expect the board to act until next month at the earliest.
Straub emphasized that lawmakers do support the state funding — “we did not authorize that money disingenuously, we still believe it should happen” — and are open to negotiation with Wolf, likely as part of a broader package of changes to the electoral system.
Otherwise, he said, Republicans will sue to stop the governor.
“We certainly believe it would be illegal and there would be action on our part in terms of a lawsuit if he does go forward,” he said. “As long as he comes back to the original way he asked for this to be done and we can authorize a bond … there’s really no need for a lawsuit here, as long as he goes the way he originally intended.”
Where that leaves county election officials
“A pox on both their houses,” Lehman, the Lycoming official, said of Republicans who added other pieces to the funding bill, and of Wolf for not ensuring state money for the counties. “Unfortunately, with election legislation, it can start as something administrative, innocuous, nonpartisan, and then you have this menu of some hot-button issues that tend to get people very animated on both sides. And if one of those gets entered in, suddenly that bill just becomes a political issue. And it didn’t need to be.”
With state funding in flux, counties are moving forward on their own. Nine counties, including Montgomery, used new systems in the primary election in May, and others, including Philadelphia and Chester, plan on using their machines for the first time in November. (Delaware and Bucks join the remaining counties in aiming for an April 2020 rollout.)
A lot of work remains even after counties select a system, including rewriting policies and procedures for Election Day, training elections staff and poll workers, and getting voters familiar with the new machines.
Presidential elections have the highest turnout, meaning an increased likelihood for something to go wrong. That’s due to both the number of voters and the fact that a significant portion of them cast ballots only every four years and may be less familiar with the voting process.
“Training the public,” said Tim Benyo, Lehigh County’s election director, “is probably the biggest obstacle.”