Pa. officials worry about new voting machines, new law in 2020 elections

Is Pennsylvania ready for its upcoming April 28 primary?

  • Ivey DeJesus/PennLive

(Harrisburg) — Gloria Lee Snover has peered down the abyss of election nightmares.

Last November, just as polls closed, Snover, the chairwoman of the Northampton County Republican Committee, quickly realized that something had gone wrong with the state’s new voting machines.

The results that posted that night were statistically impossible, and Snover suspected that the new machines had malfunctioned. She would be proven correct.

The Northampton County election night debacle was just one of several mishaps that marred the last municipal election and cast doubt on Pennsylvania’s readiness for what is poised to be an historic election cycle this year.

Now, the recent Iowa caucus debacle begs questions: Is Pennsylvania ready for its upcoming April 28 primary? Will the state be ready for November?

Pennsylvania has required counties to use new voting machines. And the state’s new election reform law signed by Gov. Tom Wolf takes effect this year for the first time.

Beginning with the April primary, voters will be able to cast their ballot from their homes without having to provide an excuse as to why they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. This year, people also have more time to register to vote; voters can register up to 15 days before the election, as opposed to 30 days previously. So elections officials are dealing with several new variables this year.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in Northampton County, a lot of anxiety about the upcoming election,” Snover said. “Now, not only do we have new machines that failed us, and that we are going to try to use, we have a whole new system of mail-in voting.”

Emily Previti/PA Post

Dauphin County Commissioners George Hartwick, Jeff Haste and Mike Pries before voting 2-1 to negotiate a contract with Clear Ballot for new voting machines during a special session Monday in Harrisburg. Haste voted against it.

Officials found no signs of outside meddling in the Northampton County election night mishap; evidence points to a bug in the software. But there were widespread problems elsewhere.

Voters in York County, for instance, complained about a lack of privacy, confusion with scanners, and long wait times. York County election officials had to deal with a potential irregularity involving a bag containing about 400 ballots from a Fairview Township polling place that were scanned later because the lines were too long.

Indeed, the warning signs of possible hacking in 2016 led Pennsylvania to overhaul its voting infrastructure. Some counties – Snover’s included – have even changed the polls’ sign-in books.

With a critical primary just two months away followed by a presidential election that is poised to be historic no matter the outcome, some local election officials are apprehensive that at least in their respective county, the upcoming election cycles can be executed seamlessly given all the changes.

“I feel like I’m at the edge and they are pushing,” said Jerry Feaser, director of Dauphin County Elections Bureau. “The state, and not just the Department of State, but the governor and the General Assembly have no grasp of the implication of what they’ve enacted.”

Emily Previti / PA Post

Mercer County Elections Director Jeff Greenburg talks about preparing for implementing a new voting system and many other changes to the elections process. To his right, an oversized check for election expenses. Mercer and other counties are in line for more money to help defray their costs for voting machine acquisitions.

Some are ‘very worried’

Dauphin County was among the counties that in November’s municipal election saw voters and election officials contend with a host of challenges, including paper jams, vote-counting malfunctions, long lines and befuddled voters who could not even figure out how to use new voting machines.

On Dec. 30, Dauphin County commissioners voted to buy a new voting system. The county was the last to adhere to the requirements of Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration for all 67 counties to have new election systems in place by the April 28 primary.

Not everyone is on edge.

Steve Ulrich, who will oversee his first election as director of the York County Board of Elections, seems confident that the mishaps that threw election night into a turmoil last November are relegated to the history books.

Ulrich said he has heard from a slew of stakeholders – from voters, to judges to election workers. All, he said, have learned lessons from November.

“I feel very confident that we will have all addressed all the issues,” Ulrich said. “It’s going to be an education but I feel confident that we will have a much smoother primary election than we had in November 2019.”

Still, with the stakes arguably higher in the upcoming cycles, the newly rolled out initiatives and changes across the election infrastructure have left some officials uneasy about their system’s ability – human and otherwise – to adapt to all the new changes.

“We’ve never used this before and now we are going to add it in a presidential election?” Snover said, reeling off the new changes, including new digital sign-in poll books. “People in Northampton County are very worried. I‘ve had people say to me, ‘Is this on purpose? Why do we keep going down this road of uncertainty forever?’”

FILE PHOTO: In this June 13, 2019 file photo, an Investigator with the Office of the City Commissioners, demonstrates the ExpressVote XL voting machine at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: In this June 13, 2019 file photo, an Investigator with the Office of the City Commissioners, demonstrates the ExpressVote XL voting machine at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

Feaser said he is tired of people pointing out that other states have ushered in similar changes.

“My question is how was it implemented,” he said. “Was it all done at once or did they build a system and infrastructure to support the changes? Did they do it in a presidential election or did they try to unveil in a municipal election first?”

To be sure, changes have ushered in consequences, even minor ones.

Feaser, for instance, recently received guidelines on the new envelopes for mail-in and absentee ballots. That meant that Dauphin County, which had about 7,000 packets ready to go out, had to throw them out. Feaser said he now has to go to the print vendor to get new ones.

He said he is also waiting on the legal guidelines for the new provisional ballots.

“We are right now sitting here guessing what volume we are going to receive in terms of mail-in and absentee ballots,” Feaser said. “We’ve not had a chance to catch our breath from the last municipal election, and then we had a special election, and now the new voting system and all this other stuff. We are scurrying about trying to catch up with all the changes.”

To add to his woes, after Pennsylvania changed its voter registration deadline, Dauphin County’s longtime pollbook printer pulled out of Pennsylvania, leaving Feaser scrambling to find a vendor.

Feaser now also has to schedule training for poll workers to learn the new system, new books and new process.

“We are a month and a half away from the election,” Feaser said.

York County commissioners, from left to right, Chris Reilly, Susan Byrnes and Doug Hoke, meet on Nov. 6, 2019. Some polling places had long lines on Election Day as the county rolled out new voting machines. (Ed Mahon / PA Post)

Conflicting views

When it comes to technology, no precaution may guarantee a flawless election process.

As Terrill L. Frantz, head of Cybersecurity Management and Operations at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, notes, election mishaps are typically related to human error, not technology.

“Technology just does what we tell it to do,” he said. “It’s rarely a technical problem. Elections are personal. You have a lot of people involved. There’s a vote count, voter fraud. Those are human issues.”

Software is written by humans, which means there’s always a vulnerability. Moreover, all software has a “backdoor,” a way for anyone to get in and access data – whether for good or evil reasons.

“Iowa was a human problem that merely showed itself in the technology,” Frantz said. “Technology is an inherent magnifier — positive or negative, much like drugs. If used incorrectly or left on their own, we’ll see the bad side of technology. If managed well, then we are very happy or the technology becomes invisible. Iowa was a human problem, as are most cyber security issues.”

No doubt, Iowa has raised awareness across the country to election vulnerabilities – not that scrutiny wasn’t already high after the Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Still, in spite of security measures, what’s the likelihood that something could go wrong in any given election?

“The probability is almost absolute,” Frantz said. He uses the analogy of an airplane: the probability of two mishaps happening are higher than that of six errors occuring, and the probability is a function of the people in charge.

“You have one bad manager in charge, and one bad precinct is going to affect the outcome,” he said.

At the moment, party officials seem to stand at opposite corners when it comes to their outlook on the upcoming cycles.

“It’s a lot of change to bring into a really important election,” said Charlie O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party. “We weren’t thrilled with a lot of things that happened in the election. Obviously those issues need to be addressed but we are definitely concerned. We are going to be watching closely. Based on what we saw the last time, definitely there needs to be some improvement.”

Lucy Perkins / WESA

ExpressVote touch-screen machine on display.

His counterpart on the Democratic side, Brendan Welch, struck a more confident note.

“It’s great that the new machines were rolled out for the 2019 election,” said Welch, communications director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “It was a trial run for them. It gave people across the state a chance to get used to the new machines. Anytime you have new machines, there are going to be minor hiccups.”

Feaser, the director of Dauphin County Elections Bureau, remains apprehensive.

He is not opposed to change, he said, just change that butts up so close to critical elections.

“I think it was too much change all at once without any time to think about it,” he said. “Right now I have people who want voter registration forms and I‘m still waiting for the State Department to give us the printed application. So right now, I‘m printing off the internet. I have no paper application.”


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