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Philly controller subpoenas city elections officials over voting machine decision

Philly’s government watchdog has subpoenaed the city’s elections officials for information about their controversial voting machine decision.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart sits in the crowd and listens as Philadelphia city commissioners speak on their decision to vote in favor of new voting machines during a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart sits in the crowd and listens as Philadelphia city commissioners speak on their decision to vote in favor of new voting machines during a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart last week subpoenaed the city’s elections officials for documents related to the controversial selection of new voting machines.

Rhynhart’s subpoena is the most-pointed official effort known to date to obtain information about a voting machine selection process that critics have decried as opaque, lacking true public input, and biased.

The items requested in the subpoena, dated April 1, include copies of all proposals received, the names of all committee members who scored them, and copies of those evaluations.

The information was originally due by Tuesday, but the City Commissioners’ Office was granted an extension. (The new deadline was unclear Thursday; the Controller’s Office declined to comment on the subpoena.)

Nick Custodio, deputy commissioner under Chairwoman Lisa Deeley, said only that the city’s Law Department “is handling everything as it relates to the request” from Rhynhart. He declined to comment further.

Rhynhart is also subpoenaing documents from the city Procurement Department and Innovation and Technology Office, which were involved in the process of choosing the voting machines.

Mayoral spokesperson Mike Dunn said the city “intends to respond to the subpoenas in a timely fashion.”

Advocates of hand-marked paper ballots have spent months urging the city commissioners, Philadelphia’s three top election officials, to restart the selection process and not choose electronic touchscreen systems. They’ve been joined in their criticism by Rhynhart and Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, the elected city and state government watchdogs.

The commissioners say they were following city procedure in keeping nearly all parts of the decision-making confidential to avoid undue influence, and that they fast-tracked the process because of Gov. Tom Wolf’s order that all counties replace their voting machines before next year’s primary election.

But the process was flawed from the beginning, the advocates and watchdogs say, accusing the commissioners of writing a request for proposals that was biased toward touchscreen machines rather than paper ballots that voters fill out manually. They also say public input was limited.

The touchscreen machines, advocates say, are more expensive and more prone to cyber attack or mishap than paper ballots.

After Deeley and another commissioner, Al Schmidt, voted to select the touchscreen machines in February, they recused themselves from further action because they are running for re-election.

Since then, a group of advocates have been attending the commissioners’ weekly meetings, hoping to persuade the board — the third commissioner, Anthony Clark, who is not running for reelection, as well as the two judges appointed to temporarily replace Deeley and Schmidt — to throw out the voting-machine decision.

At the meeting Wednesday, Clark said he supported Rhynhart’s call to restart the voting machine selection process, a surprise victory for Rhynhart and the activists. To take action, they’ll have to persuade one of the two judges acting as commissioner to join Clark.

The subpoena sent to the commissioners requested documents including:

  1. Names of everyone involved in developing the June 4, 2018, request for information and Nov. 30 request for proposals, including the names of those who helped develop the weighted criteria used in evaluating responses.

  2. Copies of all proposals received.

  3. “All information used to develop the RFP.”

  4. Names and titles of every member of the selection committee that scored the received proposals and made recommendations to the city commissioners.

  5. Names and titles of the people designating those members of the selection committee.

  6. Each selection committee member’s unredacted evaluation of the received proposals.

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.