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GOP-controlled Pa. Senate moves to slow replacing voting machines

Written by Marc Levy/The Associated Press | May 1, 2019 5:25 AM
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FILE PHOTO: A technician works to prepare voting machines to be used in the upcoming presidential election, in Philadelphia, Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(Harrisburg) -- Pennsylvania's Senate moved Tuesday to potentially delay the ability of the state's governor to decertify voting machines in expectation of replacing them all by 2020's presidential elections to boost public confidence and defenses against hacking.

The Republican-controlled chamber approved the bill on a near party-line basis -- one Democrat joined Republicans to pass it -- in a vote that came a little over a year after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf began pushing for new machines.

Republican senators have complained that Pennsylvania is rushing to buy machines at considerable taxpayer expense when there's logistical hurdles and no legitimate example of a voter irregularity in the state.

In addition, Wolf is misusing his authority under the law, said Senate Majority Whip John Gordner, R-Columbia.

"Never, never whether it's been a Democratic governor or a Republican governor has there been circumstance where there has been a pronouncement made that every voting machine is going to be decertified, as was announced last February," Gordner said during floor debate.

The bill does not explicitly block action by a governor, and Republicans contend that the bill would not necessarily slow the process. But one Democrat suggested that that would be the result.

"Democracy delayed is democracy denied," Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said during floor debate. Democrats, he said, are "trying to get a secure election system with secure voting machines in place in every county in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

Under the bill, a governor's administration that intends to decertify voting systems in more than half of the state's counties must submit a written plan to lawmakers at least six months in advance. Lawmakers must then organize a commission to study the plan and make recommendations to the Legislature.

Republicans rejected Democrats' amendment to shorten the bill's timeframes and promise a more immediate and bigger financial commitment than what Wolf has thus far proposed.

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A sample ballot provided by a voting machine company hoping to win contracts with Pennsylvania counties. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

The bill likely has a short life.

Its fate is uncertain in the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives and Wolf opposes it, although his office stopped short of issuing a veto threat Tuesday.

"There is virtually unanimous agreement among security experts, including in the Trump administration, that states should not delay improving voting security with machines that produce paper backup," Wolf's office said in a statement.

Pennsylvania had been warned by federal authorities that Russian hackers targeted it and at least 20 other states during 2016's presidential election.

That prompted a wide range of election integrity advocates and computer scientists, as well as former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, to urge states to switch to machines that produce an auditable paper trail.

Pennsylvania occupies a unique place on the issue.

State election officials have warned lawmakers that failing to replace Pennsylvania's roughly 25,000 voting machines by next year's elections could leave it as the only state without voter-verifiable paper systems, and certainly the only presidential battleground state in that position.

Better than 4 in 5 Pennsylvania voters use machines that store votes electronically without printed ballots or another paper-based backup that allows a voter to double-check how their vote was recorded, according to election security analysts.

The so-called direct-recording electronic machines in wide use in Pennsylvania make it almost impossible to know if they've accurately recorded individual votes or if anyone tampered with the count.

Pennsylvania's counties where paper-ballot or paper-backup machines are used have complained that they should not be forced to switch. But Wolf's administration has maintained that those machines are aging, lack continuing support for their software and hardware and will be more expensive in the future to replace.

Wolf's administration said more than 40% of counties have taken steps to procure new voting systems.

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