State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

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Senators air voting machine grievances to State Dept. officials

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Feb 20, 2019 7:27 PM
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Due to heavy snow, the State Department's budget hearing before the appropriations committee featured a reduced panel of lawmakers. No Democrats attended. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

 

(Harrisburg) -- Last year, Governor Tom Wolf gave counties a mandate: replace their voting machines with ones that leave a paper trail in time for the 2020 primary election.

That move was based on concerns that many of the aging machines are difficult to double-check in the event an election's integrity is questioned.

The commitment became binding months later, when the commonwealth settled a 2016 lawsuit with Jill Stein's presidential campaign that alleged the old machines weren't reliable and made recounts difficult. State officials didn't admit any fault, but their settlement with Stein included a pledge to update the machines by 2020.

The undertaking is expected to cost counties about $125 million.

Wolf has said he wants the state to put $75 million toward the project over five years--an amount some county officials have said is not enough.

On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers on the Senate's Appropriations Committee let officials from the Department of State know that they're not totally happy with the arrangement.

Berks County Senator Bob Mensch said he thinks the upgrades are unnecessary.

"We have a rush to 2020," he said. "We have a huge expense to our taxpayers. We have vendors who are using excessively high interest rate proposals. We have governments that don't have a way to pay for these. And we have no example, none, of a real, legitimate issue.

Asked how he's factoring the federal settlement into his calls for extending the new-machine deadline, Mensch said he wants "to be responsible to the courts," and hopes that "sometime, they become responsible to the legislature again."

During the hearing, Mensch and other senators asked acting State Department Secretary Kathy Boockvar to describe how a machine might theoretically be hacked.

She said it is possible for a person to physically switch out software to change votes--a scenario that prompted Mensch to ask, incredulously, "have you ever visited a poll?"

"Every voting system has access points," she said later. "The current voting systems were created 12, 14, in some cases 25 years ago," and new systems would have to pass more rigorous "penetration testing" to see whether it is possible to change votes.

"It they don't pass that," she said, "they don't get certified."

Boockvar said while voting machine tampering isn't known to have happened in Pennsylvania, new machines would make it more unlikely.

"If we don't [upgrade], we will certainly be the only swing state, if not the only state left in the country without a voter-verified paper trail," she said.

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