Department of State mandate requires new voting machines

BEDFORD — A state mandate requiring counties to update their voting machines has Bedford County commissioners concerned about the county’s budget and the future of residents’ votes.

A half million dollars was requested to replace the county’s existing voting systems at a budget hearing this week. With an estimated annual budget of $19 million, the county commissioners questioned the ability to finance new voting machines.

Commissioner Josh Lang noted the current voting machines haven’t been used very often. “We’ve had the election equipment for like 10 years, and we’ve used it twice each year,” he said. “At this point, we haven’t seen what the state has said in terms of consequences for not doing it. And $500,000 is not an easy thing to come up with.”

Commissioner Barry Dallara estimated the machines have been used about 26 times. “So you got to use something 26 times and now we’re going to have to spend half a million dollars or more to replace them … just because they increase or change the software doesn’t mean that we should have to spend half a million dollars to achieve that,” he said.

Wanda Murren, Pennsylvania Department of State communications director, said the existing voting systems in the state are approaching the end of their useful lives and operate on system software that will not be supported by manufacturers.

“The department wants to ensure that Pennsylvania voters are using the most secure, auditable and resilient voting machines available,” Murren said.

The Department of State notified vendors in February that all new voting systems sold to counties must create a “voter-verifiable paper trail.” This trail allows voters to confirm their votes prior to casting their ballots, enabling “robust post-election audits,” according to the department.

If Bedford County doesn’t update its voting system, its machines could be decertified, which means the county would be unable to use them. There are 40 electronic voting machines, said the county’s chief clerk Debra Brown.

Commissioners questioned what would happen if the county didn’t get new voting equipment. They said they worry the county’s residents’ votes wouldn’t count if the county didn’t update its voting systems.

The Department of State is considering decertifying existing voting systems prior to the 2020 primary, but it has not selected a decertification deadline in case a county needs to schedule a special election before or after Dec. 31, 2019.

Counties are supposed to have a new voting system selected by Dec. 31, 2019. Murren said the target date in 2019 gives counties time to plan for and budget for new systems and to train their poll workers while giving the department time to explore funding options. The department is looking into grant opportunities, state and federal appropriations, bonds and other creative financing options, Murren added.

Of the $380 million allocated for nationwide election security upgrades, Pennsylvania has about $14 million to update its voting systems.

“There are multiple ways to fund voting system upgrades, and we are still exploring the options,” Murren said. “Other states and their counties have leased their voting equipment over six to eight years, purchased it outright or used low-interest loans, grants, bonds and appropriations to cover the cost.”

When asked what commissioners intend to do about the mandate, Lang said they would continue to push back.

Susquehanna County became the first county to accept delivery of a new voting system for the Nov. 6 election. The state expects most counties to acquire new voting systems either by the 2019 primary or general election.

Mirror Staff Writer Shen Wu Tan is at 946-7457.