Mandate leaves county holding expensive bag
The integrity of the vote is central to the democratic process. But integrity isn’t always cheap.
It will cost Lehigh County between $3.5 to $4 million to comply with a new voter verifiable paper voting system mandate required by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to prevent Election Day hacking. The new system requires a paper trail for each ballot cast.
“We saw it coming,” said Timothy Benyo, Lehigh County’s chief clerk of registration and elections, of the changes. “We would have been moving toward it eventually.”
The problem isn’t the change so much as the paucity of funds allocated by the federal government to pay for it, which is akin to wearing a shirt three sizes too small.
Pennsylvania will receive about $13.8 million, which has to stretch over 67 counties. If the cash is dispersed by voter registration numbers, Benyo estimates Lehigh County will receive about $300,000. A 5 percent match reimbursement from the commonwealth will add roughly another $200,000 to the effort for a $500,000 total, he said. That leaves the county holding a $3 to $3.5 million bag to replace about 700 machines.
Election officials across the commonwealth, such as Benyo, maintain voting reforms should be considered now to save money later.
Russia replaces chad
To understand how we got to this point, you need to understand where we were.
Lehigh County phased out paper ballots in 2006, the same year the current digital machines – sometimes called direct recording electronic machines – replaced the mechanical devices.
This change was made, in part, with funding from the Help America Vote Act, Benyo said.
The law was enacted after the 2000 presidential recount in which incompletely punched holes in paper ballots — known as “hanging chads” — caused confusion in Florida as to which candidate was selected by the voter and forced the disqualification of thousands of ballots.
Benyo was asked how the current crop of machines have performed in the last dozen years.
“There were no issues,” he said.
Benyo added there are series of security clearances and tests are performed on each machine and potential glitches are addressed.
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, words such as “hacking” and “Russia” acquired a different connotation. Various security measures to the voting databases and voting machines have been discussed by the federal government to prevent a potential compromise.
The commonwealth’s directive requires compliance with the new voting paper-trail measure by the end of 2019 and encourages counties to have the new system enacted by the 2019 general municipal election in November.
Benyo said he would prefer not to have the new machines debut during the 2020 presidential election, although he could not guarantee earlier compliance.
“It’s our goal to have this in place by the municipal election,” he said.
There has been a push to get ahead of the voting machine change curve. Proponents have identified voting system funding as one of its top legislative priorities for 2018 because the voting technology has evolved rapidly and replacement costs have increased sharply.
In a letter sent to media outlets by Pennsylvania county election officials, the group is urging legislators to implement “nuts and bolts” election reforms.
These alterations could eliminate administrative inefficiencies and mitigate the recurring costs associated with conducting elections, the officials maintain. PCEO claims some of the reforms could decrease the cost of purchasing next-generation voting systems.
In addition, county election officials want to discuss reforms related to printing requirements that impose significant financial and administrative burdens.
Using Lehigh County as an example, the entire fleet of voting machines is being replaced after a roughly 12- to 13-year life cycle.
Even if Pennsylvania manages to buy its way out of the current situation via some combination of federal, state and county dollars, it appears destined to find itself trapped in a “Groundhog Day” scenario around 2030.