With Dauphin County’s decision this week to end its standoff with the state and buy new voting machines, all 67 Pennsylvania counties met the year-end deadline to comply with a state order that they implement election systems capable of leaving a paper trail of votes that can be manually audited and recounted.
Experts say this is a major step for election security ahead of the November presidential election, ensuring ballots can be accurately tallied even in the face of a cyber attack or a mishap.
“The shift from paperless [electronic] machines to having individual paper ballots is a sea change,” said Christopher R. Deluzio, policy director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security. “It’s great, it’s huge, it was necessary.”
As recently as 2018, most voters in Pennsylvania used paperless machines that recorded votes in electronic memory. In addition to concerns that computers can be hacked, electronic systems can fail and wipe out all records of votes cast.
In April 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered every county to select paper-based machines and implement them in time for the April 28, 2020, presidential primary. Dauphin County, after a weeks-long game of chicken with the state, selected its new systems Monday.
The machines will cost $120 million to implement in 58 counties, according to data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State, with no details available for the other nine counties. Not all contracts are finalized, and the figure does not include increased operating costs over the life of the machines.
“This is a tremendous accomplishment, and I applaud all 67 counties for their commitment to protecting our elections,” Wolf said in a statement Tuesday.
After Wolf’s order, counties for months had little to work with. The Department of State promised to decertify existing machines in 2020, but at the time only one new system had been approved. And many county elections officials were wary of moving forward with machines that had not been fully certified, since unexpected problems could tie things up.
Later, as voting systems were approved at the end of 2018 and in the first half of 2019, many counties said they couldn’t act because they had no money. Counties that had moved ahead, such as Montgomery, had already planned to replace their machines around this time and had saved the money.
The cost of new machines was estimated to reach as high as $153 million, with only $14.1 million available in federal and state funding. After Wolf attempted to include money for the machines in the state budget — Republican lawmakers put it instead into an elections bill Wolf vetoed — both sides agreed to include $90 million in state funding as part of a broader election reform and modernization bill.
At the same time that counties were struggling to pay for new machines, advocates were urging them to select hand-marked paper ballots, criticizing counties — especially Philadelphia — for picking touchscreen machines that print selections onto paper.
Lamont G. McClure Jr., Northampton’s county executive, said Tuesday he continued to stand behind his county’s voting machines, despite the elections board’s voting no confidence in them.
November’s fiasco was due to human error in setting up the machines, a review concluded, and McClure said he believes the new system worked, because paper ballots were able to be counted later.
“The machine-marked, voter-verifiable paper ballot caused us to have a legal, fair, and accurate election,” he said. In 2020, he said, “there’s not going to be a dispute. There may be light and heat, but at the end of the day, those ballots will be in people’s hands, and they can examine them. And they’re going to hold up.”
Two legal challenges to the state’s certification of the machines used in Northampton and Philadelphia could, if successful, lead to last-minute scrambles to implement new systems.
Now that every county will have new machines, said Deluzio, the Pitt expert, elections officials have to ensure voters know how to use them; paper ballots are protected against tampering after being collected; and election results are audited.
“It’s not enough just to get new machines,” he said. “There’s still a lot we have to do on shoring up security.”
The state has begun testing post-election audits that in the right conditions can help ensure that votes are accurately tallied, and counties and the Department of State plan to ramp up voter outreach efforts in 2020.
Elections officials also continue to need additional federal funding to protect the vote, Deluzio said, and he warned that high turnout in 2020 will be a trial by fire for new systems.
“If there are issues around foreign adversaries hacking or machines malfunctioning or anything else, my hope is that Pennsylvania county and state officials will be in a much better position to explain to the public, ‘Here’s what happened, here’s how we audited,’” he said. “These tools are much more available in Pennsylvania now than they were in 2016.”