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Commissioners select new voting machines for Philly over criticism from advocates

Philadelphia city commissioners selected new voting machines Wednesday — the system advocates have for weeks urged them to reject.

Sharon Strauss reacts as Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners, speaks about her decision before voting for new voting machines during a meeting Feb. 20, 2019.
Sharon Strauss reacts as Lisa Deeley, chair of the Philadelphia city commissioners, speaks about her decision before voting for new voting machines during a meeting Feb. 20, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia city commissioners chose a new voting machine system Wednesday to be used starting in November, despite criticism of the process from the city controller, the state auditor general, and a group of advocates who want hand-marked paper ballots.

“Philadelphia will be getting a system that is secure, resilient, and will have an auditable paper ballot,” Lisa Deeley, chair of the commissioners, said before voting Wednesday.

But the system they chose, ExpressVote XL from Election Systems and Software (ES&S), was the one that a chorus of citizen advocates had urged them not to take.

The decision came after weeks of fierce criticism, including from state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, that the process had been secretive, rushed, and designed to favor the ES&S system, which they contend is less secure than other options.

“The worst and most expensive system,” one advocate, Rich Garella, told the commissioners.

The new system will carry a $20 million to $27 million price tag in up-front costs and an additional $1 million a year in operating expenses, Deeley said.

Once the system is in place, voters will be use touchscreens to make their selections. The machines then print paper ballots with a bar code and plain text for the voters to read and verify. The bar code is read by a scanner, casting the vote.

The plain text version will be the official record of votes, and the Pennsylvania Department of State has ordered that the text, not the bar code, be used for audits and recounts.

During the public comment period, advocates again called on the commissioners to delay or restart the process.

“The process is fatally flawed,” James Marsh told the commissioners. Like others, he urged the commissioners to postpone their vote.

Steven Strahs, who has attended multiple rallies and meetings, said the entire process demonstrated an “undermining of the democratic voice that this process so badly needs.”

In her remarks before voting, Deeley agreed the process had been hurried, but argued that was the result of the order from the state Department of State that counties select new machines by the end of this year. She also said the commissioners simply were following the city’s procurement process.

“Really, we played the hand we were dealt,” she told reporters after the meeting.

That process over the last several months has been secretive by design, following a city procurement procedure intended to shield the purchase from undue influence. A confidential committee representing various parts of city government evaluated six bids for voting machines and electronic poll books for signing voters into polling places.

Advocates said that left the public in the dark about how new machines were being selected, drawing the attention of DePasquale and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who questioned the speed and opacity of the process, and echoed the concerns about bias in the city request for proposals.

They said that language in the city’s request for proposals referring to a full-faced ballot, the physical dimensions of machines, and similarity to the current system suggested a preference for ES&S. Election officials said that requiring a full-faced ballot — on which all candidates are displayed at once — is necessary for Philadelphia’s large candidate pools and that the physical accessibility of machines affects polling locations, which are governed by a consent decree.

Advocates said a hand-marked paper ballot system, in which voters manually fill out a piece of paper and then scan it, would be safer — from both intentional attack and an unexpected event such as a power surge — and would instill more confidence in voters.

“Though we received solid arguments for hand-marked paper ballots,” said Deeley, “those arguments were unable to outweigh my concerns about the ability of the public, and our poll workers, to adapt to this change.”

As she spoke, some in the crowd began to frown, whisper, and shake their heads. For months, some said they had worried that the commissioners were favoring the ES&S system.

The commissioners "failed the American people because they allowed, maybe not this time, but the opportunity in the future, of hacking,” said Tim Brown, head of Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, one of the core groups that has been organizing voters.

“It’s frustrating. I think that it goes against the sense of good government and representing the people,” said Rhynhart. “We deserve better.”

Deeley made a motion to approve the ES&S machines, with Commissioner Al Schmidt seconding the move. (It was unclear whether the third commissioner, Anthony Clark, voted.) Deeley also chose a vendor, KNOWiNK, for electronic poll books for voter sign-in. Those will cost around $3 million up front, with another $3 million in operating costs, Deeley said. Schmidt seconded that move as well.

Now that the commissioners have selected a voting system, the city’s procurement department will negotiate a contract with ES&S for a final price and other terms.

» READ MORE: Philly’s new voting machines: A Q&A guide to the process, the controversy, and why it matters