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Federal shutdown ties up new voting machines for Montgomery County

The shutdown has left Montgomery County in limbo as it tries to implement new voting machines by the May primary.

Voters sign in to vote at Trinity Episcopal Church in Ambler, Pa., on Nov. 6, 2018. The county is replacing its voting machines and hopes to have the new ones in place by the May primary, but the federal government shutdown is holding up the process. (Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)
Voters sign in to vote at Trinity Episcopal Church in Ambler, Pa., on Nov. 6, 2018. The county is replacing its voting machines and hopes to have the new ones in place by the May primary, but the federal government shutdown is holding up the process. (Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)Read moreCharles Fox / AP

Montgomery County officials thought they were ahead of the game with their plan to have a paper-ballot voting system in place for the primary election in May.

Now, the partial federal government shutdown has left that plan in limbo — the voting machines the county wants to use have not received final federal certification. If the federal government doesn’t reopen soon, those machines won’t be in place for the primary.

“It’s stunning,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, the Democrat representing the 4th District. While federal workers and their families are hurt the most, she said, the shutdown has begun to bite those who need federal services: "And now we’re rippling out to the notion of the protection of our vote? It’s really staggering.”

County officials said they’re still hoping for the best.

“We’re essentially preparing to have two different systems ready to go, with the hope that it’s the new one,” said Lee Soltysiak, the county’s chief operating officer and clerk of its election board.

Things were looking rosier just a month ago. County commissioners approved a $5.8 million contract Dec. 13 to replace 1,150 machines with a system in which voters fill out a paper ballot and then scan it, creating a paper trail that can be audited. Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered counties to replace their systems by the end of the year to ensure all votes leave a paper trail, but most counties have been slow to do so for a variety of reasons, including lack of funding and resistance to the mandate.

» READ MORE: Most Pa. voting machines are old, hackable, and will likely be used to count the 2020 votes

Montgomery County would have helped lead the way, following Susquehanna County. Chester County is hot on their heels, with plans to have new machines in time for the primary election, and nearby Berks County approved new machines Thursday to be in place for the general election.

But the system Montgomery County chose, from Dominion Voting Systems, had not yet been certified by federal and state agencies. Sign-off was expected any day, Soltysiak said.

“We were under the impression here we could expect the certification in January, which is why we proceeded the way we did with purchasing the system,” he said.

Then came the federal shutdown. While the Pennsylvania Department of State has finished its testing and is preparing state-level certification, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission is closed and can’t provide final federal certification.

Until then, the county can only do so much. To implement the new system, the county needs to test the machines, write new election policies and procedures, train poll workers, and inform voters, Soltysiak said. Some of that can begin before the machines arrive, but most of it can’t.

And time is running out — at some point, the county won’t be able to get the new machines in place for the primary election.

Soltysiak doesn’t yet know when that will be, so he’s having to plan for it by also preparing to reuse the old machines, just in case.

“At some point, it will become untenable, frankly, to continue just having both,he said.

The state is also moving forward.

“The only issue with the state certification of the Dominion system is that we do not have the final paperwork on the federal certification from the EAC, which is being held up by the federal shutdown,” Pennsylvania Department of State spokesperson Wanda Murren said in an email.

The state will issue its certification next week, without formal federal approval, Murren said, “because of the unique set of circumstances.” The state certification will be conditioned upon the final federal documents being added to the report once they are available.

For now, three systems have received full approval; two others, including Dominion’s , are close to receiving approval, and a sixth system is slated for testing this month.

All are part of Wolf’s mandate that by the 2020 election every vote cast has a paper trail. (Most Pennsylvania voters today use electronic machines that do not leave a paper trail.)

»READ MORE: Pennsylvania commits to new voting machines, election audit

That’s a heavy lift, some counties say, when there’s little money available for the estimated $125 million endeavor. Wolf has said he will seek state funding to cover at least half, though whether that goes anywhere remains to be seen.

And federal grants cover only a fraction of that. Chester County, for example, is buying a new system with 515 new machines and currently has $582,594 in federal and state funding. Its tab? An estimated $5 million.

Philadelphia has $1,731,797 in federal and state funds. The city has set aside $22 million so far — and will need more, commissioners said Thursday at a public hearing.

Still, the election systems must be upgraded, said Muna Elshakhs, cofounder of Pennsylvania advocacy group Citizens for Better Elections. Beyond being more secure and auditable, she said, voting by paper ballot helps public confidence in the process.

“Elections are the foundations of our democracy, and there needs to be voter trust in our elections,” she said.

Dean echoed that sentiment as she discussed her frustration with the shutdown and its impact on Montgomery County’s voting system upgrade.

“To have that in limbo?" she said. "That cuts at the very fabric of our democracy — the safety, security, and authenticity of our vote.”

Friday marked the 21st day of the shutdown, tying it for the longest in history.