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Local Residents Have Opportunities to 'Kick the Tires' on New Voting System Options

by on November 29, 2018 11:30 AM

Centre County, like most everywhere else in Pennsylvania, will be required to replace its voting systems in 2019, and citizens will have a chance to check out some potential options at two events.

From 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursday (Nov. 29) in council chambers of the State College Municipal Building, 243 S. Allen St., the Pennsylvania Department of State will hold an expo with demonstrations of new voting machines from five vendors. 

Then from 6 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 10 at the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology, 540 N. Harrison Rd., Bellefonte, the Centre County Board of Commissioners will hold a town hall to discuss requirements and directives from the Department of State and try out some options from multiple vendors.

"Essentially this is the opportunity for citizens to kick the tires on these new machines," Commissioner Michael Pipe said. "We’re still waiting for the Department of State to certify many of the machines, so we need to wait on their certification before we can sign any contracts with a vendor. In the interim, this is a chance for citizens to look at the systems and see what they have."

Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously agreed to express intent to accept a $180,027.57 Help America Vote Act Election Security grant, the county's share of $14 million awarded to Pennsylvania for new election machines. Grants were awarded based on a funding formula using current voter registration numbers, according to County Administrator Margaret Gray.

Commissioner Steve Dershem said as of Tuesday Centre County had 111,275 registered voters.

In awarding the HAVA funding to the states, the federal government required that existing machines be de-certified and replaced with new, paper-based systems. The change, urged by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is meant to upgrade to systems with "advanced security, accessibility and auditability," according to the Pennsylvania Department of State 

Of course, Centre County has been using paper-based systems that do not connect to the Internet since 2008, and earlier this year commissioners said they expected the current systems to have a useful life at least into 2020. New scanning systems, however, will include software that will be supportable into the future and existing systems are expected to lose that support in the near future.

"I just want to stress we have a non-hackable, paper-based system in Centre County, such that we could re-run the election four, five, six months after the election and give you the same number every time," Commissioner Mark Higgins said. "We’re looking at the same type of systems for this refresh. Completely paper-based, ability to re-run the election multiple times until we run out of physical space to store the ballots."

Counties will be required to select new voting systems that provide a paper trail by the end of 2019, preferably put in place before the November election but no later than the 2020 primary.

Dershem said he isn't thrilled that Centre County is required to replace its system before it's needed, but since it has to, he wouldn't turn down the grant money. HAVA funding was last awarded in 2006.

He said the changeover likely will cost about $1 million.

"It’s not going to be an inexpensive process to do that and $180,000 is but a fraction of what it’s going to truly cost," Dershem said. "As much chagrin as I have over replacing the system, it looks like we’re going to have to do it, so we might as well accept the money and make the best of that and whatever other funds become available. Ultimately it’s probably going to be close to a $1 million to get this thing changed over, but we don’t have a lot of options and we have a limited time frame to do it."

Pipe said that the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania recently selected election machine funding as its top priority, and that the commissioners are grateful that some funding is being provided for a recognized need. He also noted that the change won't be as much of a challenge as it is for counties that currently use electronic machines.

"Fortunately for Centre County, they made the decision in 2008 to go to paper, so we don’t have that herky-jerky new experience many election workers and citizens would experience when they go to vote for the first time on a new machine," he said. "Other counties are concerned about that."

Counties ultimately will choose from among new systems that have been certified by both the federal Election Assistance Commission and the Secretary of the Commonwealth. 

One of the systems that will be on display at Thursday's expo in State College have already received federal and state certification, two others have successfully completed testing and are in the process of certification, and the state expects one or two more to be certified by the end of the year.

“This is an opportunity for people in central Pennsylvania, including county commissioners and election officials, to try the new voting technology with paper records that can be checked and verified by the voter, and to ask questions of the vendors,” Jonathan Marks, commissioner of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, said in a news release. “We want to ensure the public understands the benefits and improvements these systems offer."

The State College expo is one of five being held by the State Department over the next several weeks as part of a public education campaign. Others will take place in Moosic, Carlisle, Doylestown and Erie.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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