A recent Pennsylvania mandate to select new voting machines has prompted Luzerne County Election Director Marisa Crispell and her colleagues across the state to step up their call for election reform, according to their letter to legislators released Thursday.
Statewide, county election officials are urging legislators to consider two options that would reduce both the number of new machines that must be purchased and ongoing Election Day staffing expenses:
• Allowing regional vote centers to serve multiple small municipalities instead of requiring polling places in each municipality.
• Permitting counties to mail ballots to voters in the smallest locations.
These reforms could save millions of dollars on new machine purchases statewide, the letter stated.
State officials informed the 67 counties last week they must select new “voter-verifiable paper record voting systems” by the end of 2019 and should try to have them in place by the November 2019 general election.
These types of systems require a physical paper ballot that can be reviewed by voters and kept by officials as a record in case final tallies must be checked, Crispell has said. To cast their paper ballots, voters must insert them into a tabulation device.
Acting Secretary of State Robert Torres has announced the state will receive approximately $13.5 million in federal funding to assist counties with machine replacement. A total $14.15 million will be available due to a required 5 percent state match, Torres said in his release, which expressed the state’s commitment to continue exploring additional funding options.
The $14.15 million would be “significantly insufficient” to cover the counties’ costs because the appropriation must be shared by all 67, the letter said. Current estimates to replace voting systems in all counties combined range from $100 million to $150 million, it said.
Luzerne County officials have estimated its new voting machines would cost approximately $4 million, and no capital funding has been set aside for that project.
Other states are taking steps to financially support their own statewide transitions to new voting systems, including the Ohio Senate’s April 13 approval of a bill appropriating $114.5 million to its counties, according to the letter.
The reforms also would make it easier for counties “struggling” to find polling place sites that comply with federal accessibility requirements, the election directors said.
Luzerne County hired a consultant to complete a survey of all 156 buildings used for elections, and letters will be sent in June to the owners of those with barrier issues, Crispell recently told the county election board.
New voting locations will be selected during the summer if the owners of flagged buildings are unwilling or unable to make changes.
The survey stemmed from a settlement with the federal government over a November 2015 general election inspection that found many county polling locations contained access barriers for people with disabilities.
The government appears to be “slipping into” the policy model of replacing machines every 10 to 12 years, the election directors’ letter said.
Luzerne County started using touch-screen electronic voting machines in the 2006 primary. The federal government gave the county $3.6 million to fund the initial switch to the electronic voting machines now in use and cover the cost of other improvements required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
“Even if we manage to buy our way out of the current problem via some combination of federal, state, and county dollars, the state and the counties will find themselves back in the same situation in 2028-2030 if we do not consider additional changes to the way we deliver elections,” the letter stated.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.