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Philly elections officials touted new electronic poll books. Now the city says they don’t work right.

“We believe the City should not use this electronic pollbook system in an election unless there is complete confidence that it will perform reliably.”

Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio demonstrates an electronic poll book.
Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio demonstrates an electronic poll book.Read moreJonathan Lai

Philadelphia was supposed to use new, electronic poll books in its election this November, allowing poll workers to search for voters on an iPad and sign them in electronically, rather than use thick paper books.

The change was supposed to reduce human error, and to make checking in voters faster and easier. City officials promised it would help troubleshoot problems, such as providing correct information to voters who show up in the wrong polling place. It was supposed to, eventually, provide real-time turnout numbers from every polling site across the city.

Turns out the system was not ready for prime time.

Instead, “the city observed several problems with KNOWiNK’s poll book system” during a test election conducted last month, the city’s acting chief administrative officer, Stephanie Tipton, said in a letter Tuesday to the acting board of elections.

“The observed problems included failures to properly connect to voting machine printers and inadequate election night reporting,” Tipton wrote. "Upon a review of the Pilot Election results, a project management team … concluded that it does not have confidence that KNOWiNK’s poll book system will be able to perform reliably for this November’s election. We believe the city should not use this electronic poll book system in an election unless there is complete confidence that it will perform reliably.”

With less than two months until the municipal election, Tipton urged the board to abandon its plan to use the e-poll book system this time.

“The city should instead continue to use its traditional paper poll books for voter and poll worker check-in,” she wrote. “Those traditional paper poll books have been used in Philadelphia elections for over 20 years.”

The board of elections, which had an executive session Tuesday with the city’s Law Department, voted Wednesday to follow Tipton’s recommendation and use paper poll books in November’s municipal election.

Two of the Philadelphia city commissioners, Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt, voted in February to select St. Louis-based KNOWiNK as its vendor for “e-poll books,” a decision that was largely overshadowed by the simultaneous award of a controversial contract for new voting machines.

At several times during and after the selection process, Deeley said she hoped voters would appreciate the electronic poll book system and that the system would help the commissioners run elections more efficiently and respond more quickly when issues arise.

Deeley and Schmidt have been replaced by city judges on the elections board as they run for reelection. Wednesday’s unanimous decision came from the two judges and the third commissioner, who remains on the board.

The contract was signed in June: Philadelphia would pay $2,659,400, the lowest bid, to KNOWiNK for 3,550 iPads and accessories, including software.

Nick Custodio, deputy city commissioner under Deeley, said the city “has not been invoiced for anything” and thus “has not paid them anything.” He declined further comment on the letter.

Since then, city elections and technology workers have been quietly receiving and testing the iPads at the same time as the ES&S ExpressVote XL voting machines. The systems were used during a mock election Aug. 21, which is when the problems were discovered, Tipton wrote.