Under a state threat to upgrade voting machines by the end of the year or risk not having their votes counted in 2020, Pennsylvania counties are scrambling to buy new systems — and some of them aren’t happy about it.
“This doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Charlie Martin, a Bucks County commissioner. The county hasn’t selected new machines yet. Nor have Delaware and Chester Counties. Philadelphia’s commissioners chose new machines last week and plan to have them in place by November.
Montgomery County is one of a handful of counties that will have new machines in place for the May primary, and more will be ready for November. But the counties are struggling, with officials saying money and timing are the biggest issues. Some counties had planned to buy new systems in a few years, but now they are being forced to do so at a time when minimal funds are available.
“Cambria County does not have the money to pay for this mandate and may need to pursue financing options,” said chief clerk Michael Gelles. The county had expected to use its machines for several more years, and was holding off on upgrades until it learns what state money becomes available. “The machines have adequate life and security," Gelles said. "The county should be allowed to make replacements on its own schedule.”
Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of State last year ordered counties to buy new, more-secure voting machines that leave a paper trail. Experts say that is best practice to ensure proper postelection audits and recounts and instill voter confidence. However, the upgrades carry a price tag up to $153 million, according to the state, and so far only $14.1 million has been made available.
Wanda Murren, spokesperson for the department, said it knows of 15 counties that have selected new voting systems. She provided a statement by acting Secretary Kathy Boockvar saying she expects seven to 12 of the 67 counties to have new machines for the primary election this May, and a majority to have them by November.
“We are very pleased with the progress being made by the counties,” she wrote. “Election directors and county commissioners have been incredibly dedicated and thorough in researching and weighing their options.”
Generally, the counties furthest along are those that already were preparing to buy new machines and had set money aside.
“We were underway, which kind of gave us a head start,” said Lee Soltysiak, the chief clerk and chief operating officer for Montgomery County. The county’s current machines were purchased in 1996 and nearing the end of their usable lives.
After some delays due to the partial federal government shutdown, new machines have arrived and are being tested. Meanwhile, officials are creating new election policies and beginning to train workers and educate the public, Soltysiak said.
The machines cost $3.4 million upfront and around $2.4 million in operating costs for several years. The county can handle that, Soltysiak said: “We’ve been planning on needing to make a fairly significant expenditure to replace the system for a number of years.”
Berks County’s machines are voting age, too — the bulk of them were purchased in 1989, with some upgrades in 2006 — and new ones have been planned for several years, said Deborah Olivieri, the elections director. Berks has a new system selected, at a cost of roughly $4.5 million, and it will be in place for the November election, Olivieri said.
Still, even for a county that was in a position to move on the state’s orders, “it’s been a grueling process,” she said.
Part of the pressure on counties is the state’s threat to decertify current machines by the 2020 primary, meaning they cannot be used in elections.
There’s little the counties can do but comply.
“If I had my druthers, we’d be waiting until the useful life of these machines are up and then replacing them,” said Robert Loughery, chair of the Bucks County commissioners, “but there’s obviously other pressures out there that are pushing this to happen sooner rather than later.”
Bucks County has the money to cover the cost of new machines, Loughery said: “Is it something that we really want to spend money on this year? Probably not, but it’s something that’s important and we’ll have to do it.”
But other counties say they won’t be able to afford new machines.
Gerald D. Feaser Jr., the elections director for Dauphin County, said buying new machines will cost his county $4 million to $8 million. Asked whether the county has the money, his answer was direct and immediate: “No.”
Wolf has proposed $15 million in state funding for each of the next five years, but that money is not guaranteed and county officials have criticized that as too little funding spread over too long a period.
Chester County has not yet selected a vendor, but officials expect to pick a system that uses hand-marked paper ballots. That will cost around $5 million, with $583,000 coming from existing federal and state funds. They will pay for the rest, said county spokesperson Rebecca Brain.
She said the county’s plan to have machines in place for this year’s primary election had been delayed because of issues with a statewide contracting process. It now plans to have them in place for November.
Delaware County hasn’t yet picked new machines and likely won’t have them ready until the 2020 primary election, said Marianne Grace, the county’s executive director. The selection process has been slow because county officials have been waiting for the state to certify new systems and figure out funding.
For other counties, questions remain. Some are tentatively moving forward and exploring ways to pay; others are waiting to see whether anything changes. Ultimately, officials said, they’ll have to comply. Even if unhappily.
“We’ll move forward,” said Martin, the Bucks commissioner. “But we’re not going to be the first ones to get it done.”