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

It’s a major purchase and has drawn criticism for being rushed and opaque. Here’s what’s going on.

Voters in booths at Thomas G. Morton school on 2015 Primary Election Day in Philadelphia.
Voters in booths at Thomas G. Morton school on 2015 Primary Election Day in Philadelphia.Read moreStephanie Aaronson / File Photograph

Philadelphia is buying new voting machines, but the process has been dogged with controversy and fierce criticism from city and state watchdogs and a group of advocates who want hand-marked paper ballots.

The Philadelphia city commissioners selected a new system, the ExpressVote XL from Election Systems and Software (ES&S) — the exact system that the advocates had urged them to reject.

With each vote leaving a paper record that can be manually audited and recounted to ensure proper tallies, officials tout the new system as more secure than the current machines in use across the city.

But the advocates argue the ES&S system is still less secure and more expensive than a system primarily using paper ballots that voters manually fill out. From the very beginning, they worried that the entire process was too rushed and secretive, designed to favor ES&S at the expense of a system they see as better.

Here’s a guide to what’s going on.

The basics: Why Philly is getting new machines

New voting machines are coming to every county in Pennsylvania.

Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of State ordered counties to upgrade to new, safer machines by the 2020 primary. That’s a big deal for every county; for Philadelphia, by far the largest, it affects more than a million voters.

What did the governor order counties to do?

The directive requires counties to use machines that have a paper trail that can be verified by voters and audited. All 67 counties will need to select new machines by the end of the year.

Some counties already vote on paper-based systems, but those too will need to be replaced by newer ones.

What if a county doesn’t buy new machines?

The state plans to decertify current systems by the 2020 primary, meaning they would no longer be legally usable, said department spokesperson Wanda Murren.

Why does Pennsylvania need new machines?

Most voters in Pennsylvania use machines that are old and do not produce a paper trail.

Experts say paper trails are important because they can be audited to ensure accuracy of vote totals, allow for manual recounts, and instill confidence in voters that their votes were recorded accurately.

And election officials worry that the aging machines will they become too costly to maintain and vendors may stop supporting their software.

What about other states?

Every state is different. Elections are so decentralized — they are administered by counties or, in some places, towns — they often vary by locale. (The 67 counties in Pennsylvania use a mix of systems.)

New Jersey is one of five states using only direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, which do not have a paper trail for voters. Eight states, including Pennsylvania, use a mix of systems.

What does Philadelphia currently use?

Since 2002, the city has used a DRE system. The entire ballot is displayed at once, with voters pressing buttons that get read by a touchscreen behind the ballot.

After all selections are made, voters press a button and their selections are recorded electronically and counted by reading a removable memory cartridge. The machines do not produce a paper record.

How much will all this cost?

Statewide, it depends on the machines chosen, the contract negotiated, etc. Kathy Boockvar, the acting secretary of the Department of State, told senators at a hearing this week it will cost up to $153 million statewide.

Wolf last month proposed $75 million in state funding over five years. Election officials across the state criticized that as too little, over too long a period, and without guarantee it will actually come through.

The city’s voting machines will cost $20 million to $27 million up front, with an additional $1 million a year in operating costs. The electronic poll books will cost about $3 million up front and $3 million in operating costs.

Who is paying for all this?

Taxpayers. Pennsylvania has received $13.5 million in federal funding, which requires a 5 percent state match. The city’s share is $1.7 million.

Philadelphia also has $22 million in city funding.

How Philadelphia’s machines were selected

What machines did they choose from?

Four systems have been certified by the state since Jan. 1, 2018. (Only the newly certified systems can be bought and used moving forward.)

There were six bids from vendors to provide new machines, though those bids remain secret and that includes those for electronic poll books. In the end, the commissioners had two options: the ES&S ExpressVote XL system they ultimate chose or the Dominion ImageCast X.

Electronic poll books?

Voters sign in when they enter their polling place. They currently sign a paper poll book, but in recent years electronic systems have become popular — imagine checking in on a tablet — for several reasons, including allowing real-time tracking of turnout.

How were the machines selected?

They went through the city’s “best-value procurement process,” which voters approved in 2017. Under that process, bids are evaluated on whether they provide the best value and not whether they are the least expensive.

A confidential selection committee evaluated the bids, scoring them and making a recommendation to the city’s procurement department.

The committee recommended the two highest-scoring proposals be re-negotiated. After those vendors submitted new offers, the committee scored their proposals again but did not come up with one single recommendation. Instead, it sent both proposals to the city’s procurement department, which handed it off to the city commissioners.

The city commissioners made their selection Wednesday, Feb. 20.

Who was on the selection committee?

The city refuses to name the members. It included representatives from the commissioners, City Council, the mayor’s office, the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, and the office of the city’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.

What machines were chosen?

In addition to the ExpressVote XL system from ES&S and electronic poll books from KNOWiNK.

How will voting be different on the new machines?

To start, voters beginning this November will sign in on electronic poll books. They then make selections on a large touchscreen. Once all candidates are chosen, voters print a paper ballot from the machine.

That ballot will have both a bar code and a plain-text listing of the voters’ choices. After reading over the plain text to confirm the choices, voters scan the bar code to cast their vote.

The controversy over Philly’s machines

What’s the criticism?

It centers on the idea that the commissioners pre-selected a system and then rushed a secretive process to prevent proper oversight and input.

Critics, including city and state watchdogs and advocates for hand-marked paper ballots, say the way the request for proposals was written, the fast-moving timeline, and a lack of transparency point to a predetermined choice. The commissioners say that is not the case.

But what’s this about the RFP favoring one system?

The city’s request for proposals included language regarding the physical dimensions of voting equipment and whether it allows a full-faced ballot.

That language suggests it was written to favor the ExpressVote touchscreen system ES&S, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale told reporters. The concern: By scoring the bids on measures such as whether a system has a “familiar look and feel” and accommodates a full-faced ballot, the evaluation process may be inherently biased for all-digital machines over hand-marked paper ballots.

Full-faced ballot?

One on which all candidates are on the same page, the way they are on Philly’s current machines. Because the ES&S system is a full-faced ballot that displays all names at once, advocates said the RFP was clearly designed to favor that system.

What did the commissioners say?

Those parts of the RFP were included because Philly often has much larger candidate pools than other places, Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio said in a statement.

As for the physical dimensions of the system, he cited the consent decree that governs physical accessibility of the city’s polling places.

“There are many unique characteristics about Philadelphia’s elections that require a responsible evaluation to include a conversation on ballot face and physical footprint of a system. We are under a consent decree with regards to the handicapped accessibility of our polling places so the ability of a system to fit into our existing polling places and not require major changes in where people vote is a positive factor. We also have a large ballot that sometimes attract larger candidate pools not seen elsewhere in the state, the ability to display all candidates on a screen and the whole ballot on the fewest number of screens as possible is a positive factor. This is balanced out against price, vendor diversity, training, technical support, and ability to deliver a secure, certified system.”
Nick Custodio, deputy commissioner
Didn’t the process move very quickly?

Yes. The commissioners themselves acknowledged the timeline is fast, and Lisa Deeley, the chair, said the process normally would take three years but instead is compressed to a one-year timeline.

She cited three main reasons for the rushed timeline: Wolf’s directive, which forces the city to fast-track a purchase that was planned for after the 2020 election; the commissioners’ strong preference to use a new system for the first time in 2019, during a lower-turnout municipal election; and the need for several months of testing.

The system will require developing new procedures, training poll workers, and public outreach.

Was the process opaque?

Yes, by design. The process is designed to shield the selection committee from outside influence, which is why the membership is confidential.

Deeley said commissioners were not allowed to see the bids until after that committee is done. The commissioners were also legally restricted in what they were allowed to say.

As a result, public input has been limited, leaving advocates and others frustrated by a secretive process.

Concerns about security

What about security? Advocates say hand-marked ballots are the way to go.

Advocates and some security experts say hand-marked paper ballots are the most secure option because voters manually make their choice and there is less electronic equipment involved. A common line: Pencil and paper can’t be hacked.

Beyond being less vulnerable to intentional attacks, hand-marked paper ballots are also less prone to mishaps, advocates say. In the event of a power failure, for example, voters can still fill out paper ballots and have them stored for scanning later.

But even a hand-marked paper ballot system requires machinery in the form of a scanner to record that vote.

And disability-rights advocates say hand-marked paper ballots would not be universally accessible.

The new machines use bar codes, how do we know what the bar codes say?

We don’t. It’s true that bar codes cannot be read by voters and there are legitimate concerns that if a machine is hacked, it can print the correct votes in plain text but something different in the bar code.

To protect against that, the Department of State has ordered that the human-readable plain text is the official record of the vote. It will be used for audits, recounts, and challenges. So if the bar codes are altering votes, for example, that should be flagged in an audit when the manual tally of the plain text votes is different from the machine tally of the bar codes.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. Critics say voters may not always check their ballots or notice if the text is accurate.

The ExpressVote XL system has an “autocast” function that allows votes to be cast without review of the paper copy, but Murren, the Department of State spokesperson, said the department has required that function be disabled. All voters in Philly will be able to review their paper ballot before casting a vote.

What comes next

Where are we in the process?

Now that the city commissioners have chosen the ExpressVote XL system, the city procurement department will negotiate a contract with ES&S.

Is there any other sign-off necessary?

Depending on the nature of the contract, City Council could be involved because of its role allocating city money. The $22 million in city funding has already been appropriated for the city commissioners; if they need more, they will have to request it from the council. Council would also need to approve of a multi-year contract, said Jane Roh, spokesperson for Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

So could City Council hold up the process?

DePasquale and Rhynhart, the state and city watchdogs, evidently think so.

“I urge City Council to carefully review the commission’s action,” DePasquale said while criticizing the commissioners after their selection of new machines.

At the commissioners meeting in which they chose the new systems, Rhynhart raised the issue of City Council approving funding: ​“The funding still does need to get approved through City Council this spring. So I don’t think the discussion is necessarily over right now.”​

Roh’s response:

Council has one representative on the selection committee. Beyond that, Council has no direct role or authority over the voting machine procurement process. Elected officials such as the City Commissioners are directly accountable to voters. Council has no oversight role regarding the Commissioners and as such a request for Council to review the Commissioners’ actions does not make sense.
As for funding: Council appropriated current-year funds for the City Commissioners last spring, including approximately $22 million in the Capital Program. As all City departments and agencies do, the Commissioners are expected to propose a budget for the next fiscal year before the Committee of the Whole, and they are also expected to answer Council’s questions about their stated revenue needs and spending plan. They have the ability to request additional funding mid-fiscal year through an Administration-approved transfer ordinance. To date they have not done so.
Jane Roh