Centre County introduced new ES&S voting machines in the primary on May 21, 2019.
Min Xian / WPSU
Centre County introduced new ES&S voting machines in the primary on May 21, 2019.
Min Xian / WPSU
UPPER MERION TWP, MONTGOMERY COUNTY – As Jeff Frank strode out of his polling place on a recent Tuesday morning, poll watchers thanked him for voting.
“Have a great day – enjoy the complaints as they come out the door,” Frank responded.
Municipal elections tend to be relatively quiet – even in Montgomery, which consistently turns out a higher number of voters than any other county in the state but more-populous Philadelphia and Allegheny counties.
But this year, several counties debuted new voting machines – and two, including Montgomery, went to an entirely different way of voting.
“When I came and discovered what the process was, I said, okay, but it is ridiculous, a waste of time and will cause lines so long that people will not be here when the presidential election comes up,” Frank said.
Other voters exiting the Temple Brith Achim Synagogue polling location in Upper Merion weren’t quite as animated over the switch from push-button machines to scannable paper ballots filled out by hand.
“It’s even it’s better now that you actually get a confirmation ticket that your vote was cast. We never got that before,” said Tykia Turner.
Voter concerns and election security are on county officials’ minds as they try to save as much money as they can while complying with a state mandate to upgrade their voting machines.
For contractors, there could be more than $100 million in contracts at stake.
In April of last year, the Department of State told counties that they should pick new voting systems with a voter-verifiable paper record by the end of 2019.
The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf committed to having new machines in place by 2020 after settling a lawsuit brought by 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. The case targeted Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin for their voting systems’ susceptibility to hacking and for barriers to recounts.
That prompted some questions from reader Glenn Holler.
“Who stands to profit from the sale of voting machines in PA?” Holler asked. “How is voting machine certification done?”
He submitted his questions to the Listening Post. Readers were asked to choose among several questions the one they wanted answered, and Holler’s were the most popular.
So far, five vendors have been certified by the Department of State. The most recent was Hart Intercivic, earlier this month. Others are Election Systems & Software, known as ES&S; Dominion Voting Systems; Clear Ballot; and Unisyn Voting Solutions.
In order to be certified, systems first have to be approved by the federal Election Assistance Commission. At the state level, the process takes a few months, and the secretary certification reports are frequently around 100 pages long.
When it comes to who profits, records from the Pennsylvania Department of State show that industry giant ES&S, based in Omaha, Nebraska, leads the pack so far. As of early May, at least 29 counties had taken what the department considers “official action” to replace their voting machines.
Of those, 18 picked ES&S at an estimated total cost of $48 million.
Wolf has pledged to pick up at least half the costs of new machines, but it’s not clear whether the General Assembly will go along with that.
The Wolf administration has estimated that replacing the voting machines will cost about $150 million statewide.
As of early May, the department had cost estimates for 24 counties. Prices varied. Half of those counties expected to spend more than $1 million on new machines.
Kevin Skoglund, chief technologist for Citizens for Better Elections, has been tracking which machines counties pick.
He said counties have not gotten a lot of money from the federal government. So, Skoglund said, counties are largely choosing systems based on costs.
“They’re extremely price sensitive,” Skoglund said. “And so what we’re finding is that that’s the number one criteria.”
Skoglund said the five vendors in Pennsylvania offer similar systems. He compared the choice between vendors to buying a Ford or a Chevy.
“It really is up to you, as to which machine has the features and options that you like better,” Skoglund said. “But there’s no clear better system.”
But he said there is an important difference between versions of systems: Whether most voters in a county will vote on hand-marked paper ballots that are scanned into a machine, or by a touch-screen machine that creates a paper record.
Counties that select ES&S or Dominion, for instance, can choose between a system that is primarily based on hand-marked paper ballot machines or touch screens.
A paper ballot system is cheaper, according to Skoglund and some county officials. Skoglund also believes it is more secure.
But, ES&S noted, paper ballots might be more expensive over time, depending on printing costs. The company cited a report from the Georgia Secretary of State.
The choice also “comes down to the jurisdiction and how they make their decision and run their elections,” said Kay Stimson, vice-president of government affairs for Dominion Voting Systems.
“There are times where county might save on one piece of equipment, but then need another piece of equipment or different supplies or amounts of supplies such as paper,” Stimson said.
So far, Skoglund said 18 counties have picked a scannable hand-marked paper ballot option, while six have picked the touch-screen option that prints ballots to be scanned.
The list of six includes Philadelphia, where some groups, including Citizens for Better Elections, have objected to the choice; elsewhere, the decision hasn’t sparked any kind of backlash.
ES&S has some advantages in the contest to win these contracts.
About four dozen counties already use ES&S machines or services. Some have been in business with ES&S, which traces its origins back 45 years, for decades.
The company also got certified ahead of most other vendors, according to dates listed on the Department of State website.
Adams County is going with ES&S, mainly because its machines are lighter and easier to set up — one piece versus Dominion’s three-part devices — and voting procedures won’t change much, according to Director of Elections & Voter Registration Angie Crouse.
“When you have 80- and 90-year-old poll workers, that’s something you really consider,” Crouse said.
In Lawrence County, on the Ohio border, election officials rolled out the new ES&S machines in Tuesday’s primary.
Ed Allison, director of voter registration and elections, said officials there liked the programming for ES&S, which he described as “user-friendly.”
“They’ve been around the longest, and we’ve had good experience with their equipment,” Allison said.
The county spent about $697,000 on the ES&S voting system plus money for voting booths and additional equipment. The county went with a version that is primarily a paper ballot and optical scanner system.
Mifflin County uses ES&S, but several companies are scheduled to visit the central Pennsylvania county in July, said Commissioner Kevin Kodish.
“We’re going to give everybody a fair shot,” Kodish said. “But ES&S is going to be a high bar to beat, that’s for sure.”
Election equipment is what’s known as a “sticky market”: it’s not unusual for customers (in this case, counties) to stay with their existing provider if they’re happy with the service, said Dominion’s Stimson.
Dominion, based in both Canada and the United States, ranked second among vendors in the number of contracts secured, according to Department of State records.
Four counties picked a Dominion system, and the value of those contracts was estimated at more than $9 million.
Montgomery picked Dominion between the two vendors that could deliver machines in time for an election in 2019, according to spokesman John Corcoran.
The county’s paying more up front for its $5.8 million contract with Dominion. But the method for reporting results with Dominion machines is closer to the county’s procedure with its old machines, Corcoran said.
Officials also believe Dominion could prove the cheaper choice over time. One reason is ES&S machines use more custom parts, so repairs might take longer or be more expensive, Corcoran said.
Crawford County chose Dominion and opted for a $1.6 million lease instead of an outright purchase.
One reason: uncertainty over how quickly requirements could change again, given the accelerating pace of technological innovation amid heightened concerns about election security, according to Chief Clerk and Open Records Officer Gina Chatfield.
Also, officials think the new machines could save so much time that fewer will be needed.
In Pike County, officials spent about $200,000 for upgrades and chose a hand-marked paper ballot system from Dominion.
Nadeen Manzoni, director of elections in Pike County, said Dominion came in as the cheaper option both for the equipment and the long-term election support.
Pike County was already using Dominion for election support services and is happy with the company.
In Monroe County in northeastern Pennsylvania, commissioners narrowed their choices to two: Dominion and Clear Ballot.
They chose Clear Ballot at a cost of more than $750,000 for the hardware and software.
Only one other county chose Clear Ballot, according to Department of State records.
But Greg Christine, administrator for Monroe County, said commissioners liked Clear Ballot because of how simple it is.
“I think our voters are going to understand it,” he said.
Clear Ballot, a Boston-based company founded in 2009, is new to the Pennsylvania voting machine market, so it doesn’t have the decades of relationships with counties that some other vendors do. Clear Ballot focuses on a paper-ballot based system, not a touch-screen one that is more familiar to some counties.
“Sometimes people just aren’t as open to change that quickly,” said marketing director Hillary Lincoln. “But … we’ve had great demos with some of those counties, and we’ve had some counties that are open to that change.”
Several counties indicated they would’ve upgraded soon regardless of the state directive, or were even years into researching new machines when it was issued.
Some hurried to make a decision to avoid running afoul of state law that prohibits commissioners from taking official action on county voting systems while seeking re-election. The moratorium starts in March, with petition filing, and runs until the general election. Waiting until after that would have meant putting a new system in place during a presidential election, which those counties also wanted to avoid.
A few counties are still holding out hope that they won’t have to upgrade.
That’s the case in Montour County in north-central Pennsylvania. It’s a small county with 15 voting precincts. Officials there already have a paper-ballot system in place, and they say buying new machines will put a strain on them.
“We anticipate moving forward sometime this summer but have been dragging our heels somewhat in case of more comprehensive legislative relief,” Holly Brandon, chief clerk and election director for the county, said in an email.
Bucks, Dauphin, Delaware and Fayette officials say their voting machines are still in pretty good working order, despite their age. But they’re moving forward.
All four, as well as Columbia County, have scheduled public voting machine expositions in June where they hope to get feedback on multiple vendors from poll workers, election officials and anyone else who wants to attend.
Similar events were held in other counties — including Berks, Chester and Montgomery.
Fayette’s hoping to move quickly enough for a November debut to avoid launching during a presidential primary, while Delaware is one of seven counties planning on a spring 2020 rollout.
Amid the voting machine expos, contract negotiations, moratorium debates and deadlines, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a report detailing counties’ disclosures of gifts, meals or trips from vendors.
ES&S, Dominion, Electec and Unisyn all were flagged.
DePasquale said the decision by county officials to accept gifts “smacks of impropriety.” Some county officials said DePasquale’s report was being blown out of proportion, while ES&S and Dominion — the two companies listed the most times in DePasquale’s report — both denied any wrongdoing, WJAC reported.
It also was based on self-reporting, which wasn’t consistent across counties.
Delaware County’s chief elections clerk Laureen Hagan, for example, disclosed attending vendor-sponsored cocktail parties at conferences run by the Department of State.
“It was announced, after the fact, that a vendor ‘picked up’ the beverage tab. The gesture was not specific to me but to all in attendance,” Hagan wrote in a letter included in the report.
Hagan also disclosed taking pens and notepads from vendor booth displays in the past.
Adams County wasn’t noted in the report. But it hit a nerve for Crouse, the elections director.
“He really beat us up,” Crouse said. “We are all very hard-working people.”
Fayette County Election Bureau Director Larry Blosser is uncompromising when it comes to accepting gifts.
“That’s the way I’ve been schooled since I started working for the county in 1982: no gifts – even if it’s a little pocket watch,” he said.
But even with his own staunch rules, Blosser said most of the gifts detailed in the report didn’t seem like they were a big deal. And any perceived or actual influence really depends.
“I can understand if it was a substantial amount of money, or a trip to some exotic place, I can see making an issue with that,” Blosser said. “But for a candy bar or some crackers, I can’t see that.”
There was, in fact, quite a range of values among the gifts disclosed: from a box of donuts to a trip thousands of miles away.
“The one incident that really piqued the Auditor General’s interest was a trip to Las Vegas. I would say a trip to Las Vegas paid for by a potential vendor is probably not, optically, the best thing for citizens to see is occurring in our elections office,” said Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe.
Same goes for vendors, Pipe said.
“You don’t want to be seen as a vendor that’s trying to — instead of being the best equipment, or the best provider — getting in through another route, through gifts,” he said.
WPSU reporters Anne Danahy and Min Xian contributed to this report.