Challenge to Philly voting machines could affect 2 other counties

Northampton and Cumberland counties, with nearly half a million voters between them, also selected the machine that Philly bought.

  • Emily Previti

The post-2016 election legal settlement that prompted Pennsylvania to replace voting machines across the state is in the news again, with Philadelphia in the crosshairs of voting activists.

And challenges to the specific voting machine model purchased by Philadelphia are likely to affect other counties. 

The legal settlement at issue resolved a lawsuit filed by 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s campaign. Her suit charged that the lack of a paper trail on voting machines used in 2016 left voters and officials unable to carefully audit the results. The settlement requires the state to switch to election systems with voter verifiable paper ballots that can be audited and to have the machines in place no later than the 2020 primary.

Stein was back in Philadelphia Wednesday for a media event to call attention to her camp’s plan to reopen the case because, they say, the city’s new system violates the settlement terms. 

Officials in Northampton and Cumberland counties, with nearly half a million voters between them, also selected the machine that Philly bought — the ExpressVote XL, manufactured by Election Systems & Software.

The XL is a touchscreen machine that presents voters with a paper record of their choices to review before the ballot is cast and secured.

One problem, critics say, is that the ballot that’s printed after a voter makes selections lists text and a bar code. That print out is scanned to record the votes. While voters can confirm their choices in the document’s text, they can’t confirm the accuracy of the barcode, according to a letter sent this week to the Department of State from attorneys who brought the lawsuit.

The settlement terms give the state’s chief election agency, the Department of State, 30 days to answer the plaintiffs’ challenge. In this case, the plaintiffs want the state to rescind the XL’s certification or will otherwise they will “seek court relief.”

DoS didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The plaintiffs’ letter also notes the paper reviewed by the voter isn’t the actual ballot. Attorneys argue that this means the voting record can’t be fully verified or audited, and makes it  susceptible to manipulation.

Those issues were cited in a certification challenge raised this summer by a coalition of election watchdog groups.

DoS ultimately upheld its certification of the XL, subject to a handful of new conditions, as part of a response that addressed a few – but not all – of the points raised in the challenge.

The “lack of transparency” in that process itself is the final complaint raised in this week’s letter.

“If this ends up in court, the state will have to defend its position [publicly] as compared to what happened this summer … with an unprecedented level of secrecy,” said Dave Schwab, communications director for the Stein Recount campaign. “They can’t just wave their hands and say, ‘We did our process and here’s our decision.’ They must defend it if they hope to make it stick.” 

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