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Plan to improve Pennsylvania’s voting and licensing databases met with skepticism 

House and Senate lawmakers crafting next year’s state budget are questioning whether a multi-million dollar funding increase will help the Department of State finish plans to replace those systems

  • Sam Dunklau
Pa. Secretary of State, Al Schmidt

 Susan Walsh / AP Photo

Pa. Secretary of State, Al Schmidt

The Department of State says it could improve two of its key internal systems with more funding, but some state lawmakers are skeptical about whether more money would make a difference.

Agency leaders told House and Senate committees crafting the next state budget this week they need at least $14 million more next year. Much of that would pay for replacing two databases known as the SURE and PALS systems.

Counties use the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, or SURE, to process things such as voter registrations. Nurses, teachers and other professionals use the PA Licensing System, or PALS, to get their state licenses. Users of both systems say they’re difficult to use and are as much as 20 years old.

Lawmakers such as state Rep. Jim Struzzi (R-Indiana) are frustrated that the old, clunky PALS system has sometimes contributed to long delays for nurses trying to get licensed.

“We’re hearing of extreme delays; months and months. Quite frankly that’s unacceptable, it has been unacceptable,” he said. “We are losing people to other states that can actually issue these licenses in a timely manner.” 

“What is that money going to do to reduce barriers to licensure and make the process a little more seamless?” Rep. Steve Malagari (D-Montgomery) asked. 

“My wife is a licensed clinical social worker. I hear about it [PALS] all the time,” he added.

The Joint State Government Commission recommended the Department of State “improve” the PALS system in a report last April, but it has yet to do so. The commission seemed to account for that, noting any change would “take time to implement.” 

Acting Secretary Al Schmidt acknowledged the frustration, but said replacing the database is only part of the problem. Thirty percent of jobs at the state board that oversees licensing are vacant. The nurse licensure department, meanwhile, has only half the staff it should.

“It’s not just a matter of hiring a clerk to process a filing or the application,” Schmidt said. “They have to review it to make sure we’re fulfilling our responsibilities to protect the health and safety of the public.”

Schmidt added that the new system would ensure agency workers could review completed applications only. The current system allows people to submit incomplete or inaccurate information without an option to correct it later, which has sometimes led to processing delays.

The agency says it will ask contractors to bid on the licensing database project this fall. Struzzi said that answer left him dissatisfied. 

“I would encourage you to do everything, above and beyond PALS, to make sure that these people are getting their licenses in an appropriate and timely manner,” Struzzi said. 

The Department of State is also working to launch a new version of the SURE system to help counties better handle mail-in voters. Budget makers in the House and Senate also questioned why that hadn’t happened yet, despite work that began in 2020.

“We have to make sure the implementation of the SURE system works when it works for all 67 counties,” Sen. Tim Kearney (D-Delaware) said.

Agency leaders said the multi-year project is now “behind schedule,” and that they hope to deploy ready-to-use software that has been used in other states. The agency did not specify which software that would be during this week’s budget hearings. 

Schmidt noted the replacement project is too sensitive to be rushed.

“The system has to be absolutely perfect before it goes live, so that when county election administrators are working with it, they’re comfortable with it and we don’t have any mistakes occur, especially in an environment where any errors are perceived as nefarious or intentional,” Schmidt said. 

Several Republican lawmakers asked whether the new version of the SURE system would be ready by the 2024 presidential election, but Schmidt and others declined to say.

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