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Centre County Moves Forward with Purchase of New Voting Machines

Centre County’s Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved the purchase of new countywide voting systems for $1.2 million.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of State, on recommendation from the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, required that existing voting machines across the state be replaced by the end of 2019. Systems are required to be paper-based and not connected to the Internet — both of which already applied to the county’s existing machines.

Centre County will purchase 200 new machines from Election Systems & Software (ES&S) the same vendor of the county’s current machines. The total cost includes $860,571.75 for the equipment and $332,000 for a five-year hardware and software maintenance agreement, as well as set-up and training.

Voters will continue to fill out paper ballots that are then deposited into the new scanner and tabulator. They also will continue to have the option of using a touch-screen ballot-marking device designed for people who may be unable to mark an optical-scan ballot. The touch-screen option provides a paper printout that can be reviewed before being placed in the scanner.

‘The equipment itself is very little change for our election workers as well as for the voters,’ said Joyce McKinley, director of elections and voter registration.

Though counties have until Dec. 31 to purchase new machines, Centre County’s will be in place for the May 21 primary election. Elections staff will be trained and in turn will train election board members in mid-April.

‘We’ll probably be one of the few counties that will be deploying in May rather than November,’ McKinley said.

Centre County’s current systems — the M100 and AutoMARK — were built in 1995, but refurbished and purchased by the county in 2008. The will be replaced with the DS200 tabulator and scanner and ExpressVote touch-screen system.

‘This allows us to stay paper-based with our ballots,’ Commissioner Michael Pipe said. ‘It improves the ADA accessibility with these new machines and gives us some safeguarding improvements we may not have had with our current machines but just adds another layer of safeguarding and security.’

Pipe said that so far Centre County had only been offered 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 — to offset the cost of the new equipment. 

In his budget proposal released later in the day on Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed $15 million a year for each of the next five years to help counties across the Commonwealth pay for the new voting machines.

Commissioners said in March 2018 that 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. 

Commissioner Steve Dershem said he had been hesitant about moving forward with the purchase until it was clear the state would not reverse its decision on the new requirements.

‘So we are being forced to buy new equipment, and though our equipment is 25 years old I still think it works very well and is very accurate in its deployment,’ he said. ‘That being said this is an upgrade to that and hopefully it will serve the citizens of our county for many generations.’

The Department of State held an expo of potential new systems in November in State College and the county hosted another in December in Bellefonte. After receiving feedback from community members, staff, election workers and commissioners, the options were narrowed to three.

Dershem said the selected machines are ‘the best fit for Centre County and probably the least disruption for the voters and election officials.’ He also said the county already is comfortable working with ES&S.

The new machines also will offer some productivity advantages, including capturing write-ins and printing them out on the results tape so that election workers don’t have to manually create a write-in tally sheet. McKinley said that will allow election boards to complete their work earlier than in the past.

Commissioner Mark Higgins noted that ES&S also came in with the most affordable option. He added that for counties that were not using a paper ballot system, the change may have a learning curve. But in Centre County, voters and election workers shouldn’t have an issue.

‘For your average citizen, it’s not going to seem any different at all,’ he said. ‘It’s still a paper ballot. You’re still filling in bubbles. For our elections workers, it is the same vendor.’

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that existing voting machines across the state had been decertified. Counties are required to replace voting systems by the end of 2019, but existing machines have not to date been decertified, according to a Department of State spokesperson.