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What Pa. counties can learn from voters’ reactions to Montgomery County’s paper-ballot rollout

Some voters were concerned about Montgomery County’s new paper ballots when they voted Tuesday. Here’s how elections officials are responding.

Mark Macekura, from the election board feeds a paper ballet into a new scanner. Montgomery County has received new voting machines it will begin using in the primary this May, Tuesday February 26, 2019.
Mark Macekura, from the election board feeds a paper ballet into a new scanner. Montgomery County has received new voting machines it will begin using in the primary this May, Tuesday February 26, 2019.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Some Montgomery County voters were surprised when they walked into their polling places Tuesday.

Gone were the touchscreen machines first purchased in 1996. Instead, each voter was handed a large piece of paper and asked to mark selections by filling in bubbles.

That’s when the problems began.

Some voters were confused about where to line up. Some felt the lines took longer and poll workers weren’t sure what to do.

More seriously, some voters felt uncomfortable and even like their privacy was infringed by the way their ballots were handled, scanned faceup by workers, and in some cases set off warnings that they had not voted in every race.

“It says select up to five and then rejects it if you selected fewer. Pathetic,” Richard Meier, 70, of Abington, wrote in an email to The Inquirer.

“I voted in today’s primary using the new voting system and let me tell you, it stinks,” emailed another voter, John Dyer, 69, of Whitemarsh Township.

“Yesterday’s voting was somewhat troubling to us,” wrote Kenneth A. Johnson, 67, of East Greenville.

Certain growing pains were to be expected with a change of this magnitude, in a county of more than half a million registered voters and 425 polling places, elections officials said. And in the end, the election did happen, and ballots were cast and counted.

But voters said they were worried about what would happen in next year’s presidential election — concerning lines, confusion, and lack of privacy. With every county in the battleground state implementing new machines, officials and voters said, this spring’s Montgomery County experience holds valuable lessons.

“Training’s the most important thing to focus on for other counties,” said Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its election board. “I would encourage them to listen to feedback [from] poll workers and voters.”

New paper ballots

Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered all counties to use systems that leave a paper trail that voters can individually verify before casting their ballots. An auditable paper trail is important for security, experts say, allowing for proper recounts and instilling voter confidence.

Montgomery County had already been planning to buy new systems for several years, so it was the first in the region to roll them out. (Philadelphia and Chester County are planning to use new machines in November, and Bucks and Delaware Counties expect to upgrade by next April’s primary.)

Montgomery County uses hand-marked paper ballots that voters manually fill out and then feed into a scanner. Touchscreen ballot-marking devices are also available for voters, including voters with disabilities who may have difficulties with the paper ballots.

“It is to be expected that voters who have used electronic voting machines for more than a decade and are now using hand-marked paper ballots would report more of a difference in their voting experience,” Wanda Murren, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said in a statement. Eight other counties used new systems Tuesday, she said.

The “growing pains” weren’t surprising, she said, and state officials have “full confidence” in the counties.

What voters said

In Plymouth Township, Thomas Wagner, a 67-year-old welder, said Tuesday night that he is not a fan of the new voting system.

“Cardboard boxes: I’m impressed,” he said sarcastically. “We’re going back to basics. This is crazy.”

He said using the new machines was “a little complicated, because it’s out of the ordinary.”

Kristin Paluszka, 41, an occupational therapist, said she didn’t have a problem with the new machines, but her mother had doubts.

“She’s not sure how this is safer vs. the electronic ones,” Paluszka said.

David Hartman, 59, a retired market researcher for a pharmaceutical company, volunteered at three polling places to stump for school board candidates and said the machines received mixed reviews.

When he voted, the machine alerted him that he had “under voted,” because he didn’t vote for a district attorney candidate. But Hartman is a Republican and no Republicans were on the ballot for district attorney. Misunderstandings like that “could slow things down” during the next election, he said.

“If it’s a big election where a lot of people turn out, there’s gonna be a lot of people waiting,” he said. “I don’t know how they’re gonna handle that.”

How Montgomery County is preparing for future elections

Soltysiak said the county will expand its outreach to voters, reaching them through social media, in-person demonstrations, and advertising. The goal: Help voters understand what to expect when they enter polling places, why there are new machines, and how to use them.

Still, he said, he understands “it’s not really realistic for us to be able to train and prepare ahead of time over half a million registered voters — but it is realistic for us to train and get comfortable our poll workers.”

Better training will help them understand how to best set up polling places to reduce wait times, how to instruct voters to scan ballots without exposing their choices, and how to troubleshoot problems, he said.

Soltysiak said complaints about the “under voting” warnings were common, and officials are considering disabling the alert in the future. That’s a feature, not a bug, meant to alert voters that they might have missed a race. But he also doesn’t want voters feeling uncomfortable, like they’re being called out, or that something is wrong with the ballot when there isn’t.

The county is considering dozens of suggestions from committee people, voters, and others on how to improve for the next election, said Joseph Foster, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee.

“The devil’s in the details,” Foster said. "The small things that will make the system faster and more efficient.”

Suggestions included increasing the number of ballot readers at each precinct and offering markers with larger tips so filling out bubbles on ballots takes less time.

Lessons for other counties

Soltysiak said he was glad the county had planned to have two elections with new machines before 2020. That allows time to solicit feedback — he’s reached out to every poll worker, he said — and iron out kinks.

But other counties preparing to debut new systems later, especially in next year’s primary election, will have less room for iteration.

“Time is slipping away, and I would say counties should not underestimate the enormity of the task,” Soltysiak said. “Buying the system is one thing, but training your poll workers and educating the electorate? It is something altogether different and it takes time, and a lot of effort, and a lot of patience, and a willingness to adjust and take feedback.”

During the summer, county heads of elections will meet to discuss lessons learned and best practices from Montgomery County and a few others that used new machines for the primary.

Bucks County officials, who haven’t yet chosen a system, said they’ve talked to their counterparts in Montgomery and other counties about how they are handling the transitions.

Chester County has been using hand-marked paper ballots since 2006, and officials are offering their experience, while acknowledging that voting systems involve variations in vendors, machines, and software. "It’ll be up to each county to see how we do things and how that may or may not apply,” said Kara Rahn, deputy county administrator.

“It’s a pretty big change for voters and staff and poll workers to go to a completely different system,” Rahn said. “I’m confident that getting through an election is the best practice to work through that.”