The two judges acting as Philadelphia’s elections officials won’t overturn the three-member election board’s selection of new voting machines, a setback for watchdogs and advocates who have been criticizing the choice and urging officials to start over.
Instead, Common Pleas Court Judge Giovanni Campbell wrote Wednesday to City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, he will allow the Feb. 20 voting-machine decision to stand.
“I recognize that voting systems are contested issues and people feel passionately about the systems that will be used for their exercise of a core constitutional right. And I am grateful that you and others have been voicing those concerns to the Board of Elections,” Campbell wrote. “However, I do not believe the Board of Elections should overrule its prior legitimate determinations.”
Advocates have for weeks implored Campbell and another judge, Vincent Furlong, to invalidate the selection, arguing among other things that it was an illegal vote and that the choice was not in voters’ best interests.
In his letter, Campbell did not address concerns about the voting system itself but about whether the commissioners’ Feb. 20 decision was appropriate and legal.
Campbell was appointed to replace Commissioner Lisa Deeley, the chair of the commissioners, while she runs for reelection; Furlong similarly replaced Commissioner Al Schmidt. The third commissioner, Anthony Clark, is not running for reelection and remains in his role.
At a meeting Wednesday, Campbell noted he had replied that morning to Rhynhart, who had previously sent a letter, met with him, and urged that the commissioners reverse the previous voting-machine selection. Campbell did not comment further at Wednesday’s meeting, and an aide declined to make him available to comment, saying his letter speaks for itself.
Furlong, the other judge, said at the meeting that he agrees with Campbell.
Clark did not respond in the meeting, but he last week said he supported Rhynhart’s call to restart the voting-machine selection, agreeing that it was too rushed, opaque, and lacked public input.
For months, advocates for hand-marked paper ballots had urged Philly elections officials to slow down and allow more public discussion as they raced toward their selection of touchscreen voting machines that advocates say are more expensive and less secure than paper ballots that voters manually mark.
Since the decision to select the touchscreen ExpressVote XL machines from the vendor ES & S, the activists have been a constant presence at weekly meetings, urging Campbell, Furlong, and Clark to reconsider the Feb. 20 decision by Deeley and Schmidt.
“I have great respect for these [citizens’] commitment to our democratic processes as well as their passion and resolve, and great respect for your commitment to your role and responsibilities as the City Controller,” Campbell wrote in his letter. “I do not, however, agree that it is appropriate for the Board of Elections to revisit its prior determinations here.”
Mark Zecca, a former longtime city attorney who has written letters to the judges to support restarting the selection process, said he was disappointed with that decision.
“They were acting like political hacks or bureaucrats who could not be bothered but just wanted to get back to their day jobs,” he said.
It’s now up to City Council and the controller, he said, to block the funding for the machines and question the contract.
“The two fill-in appointees abdicated their duty here to be independent and to do their jobs,” he said. “Now it shifts to the controller to step up.”
Rhynhart said she also was disappointed by the response. Her office has subpoenaed the commissioners for documents related to the voting-machine selection, and she said she will have a better sense next week what her options are.
“This is something that is just really important to keep pushing on,” she said. “From the perspective of what are my options, what are the powers of the controller to stop this, that is something that we are evaluating in-house right now.”
If the voting-machine selection stands, they will be used for the first time in the November election; the May 21 primary will use the existing machines.