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Election Integrity: Voting Machines, History and Context (1 of 2)

Last year, Pennsylvania committed to replacing all of the voting machines used across the state by the end of 2019. The back story and the politics of this commitment are complex, but we'll try to pare them down to the basics. This is the first of two posts on this issue.


Elections in Pennsylvania are, by and large, run by the Election Boards of each of the state's 67 counties. This results in some counties having different voting machines than others. For instance, Montour, Lancaster and Snyder Counties have voting machines that produce paper ballots, while Allegheny and Philadelphia Counties bought what are called direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, which have no paper ballots. Almost all of these current machines--both with and without paper ballots--were bought back in 2006 in response to the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which required all states to purchase electronic voting machines by their 2006 spring primaries or risk losing millions of federal funds that would help with the cost. (HAVA was passed in the aftermath of the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election.) The 2006 upgrade was the first one most counties had had in decades.

One major power that state-level officials have over elections is to certify which voting machines counties are allowed to purchase. In 2006, when counties were making decisions about which machines to purchase, the PA Department of State approved only a limited number of machines for purchase by an even more limited number of vendors, and touch-screen machines were not allowed to print paper back-up records. The argument then-Secretary of State Pedro Cortes made was that such a system would allow voter rolls to be too easily matched with votes cast, negating the secret ballot. Plus, the state's chief voting machine tester, CMU Professor Michael Shamos, explained that individual voters could never know whether any one printed ballot showed what the machines were actually counting internally.

Those arguments against paper ballot voting machines have now lost out, especially in the wake of Russian election meddling and the Department of Homeland Security's revelation that Pennsylvania was one of 21 states targeted in the 2016 presidential election (although there is no evidence that there was a breach). The Center for American Progress published a report in February of last year assessing each state's election security and preparedness. Pennsylvania received a D grade, falling in the bottom 30% of the rankings. According to the report published last month by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania's Election Security, "Our state is one of the most vulnerable to election manipulation, in large part because of reliance on older electronic voting systems. As recently as the 2018 election, an estimated 83 percent of Pennsylvanians were voting on machines that offer no auditable paper record." After Texas, Pennsylvania has the most registered voters using machines with no paper trail, according to Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group promoting trustworthy voting systems. The Brennan Center for Justice states that "Among the very oldest of our antiquated systems are the paperless [] DRE voting machines. It’s probably no coincidence some of the most publicized machine problems [last] year happened in states that use them...In Pennsylvania, 18 precincts in Philadelphia reported broken voting machines, and polling places in several counties reported calibration problems with their machines." Pennsylvania is one of only 13 states that allows DRE machines, and 50 of 67 counties use them [To learn what voting system is used in your county and see a video demonstration of how it works, check out this site from the PA DoS. (see this article)]

Despite these warnings, it was a long shot lawsuit that eventually forced the Commonwealth to impose a December 31, 2019 deadline for new machines that meet the following criteria:

  1. The ballot on which each vote is recorded is paper;

  2. They produce a voter-verifiable record of each vote; and

  3. They are capable of supporting a robust pre-certification auditing process.

This lawsuit stemmed from the 2016 presidential election. Because the results were so close in Pennsylvania, the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, sought to challenge the vote count, but found it impossible to do so in Pennsylvania's election system. To make a long story short, she filed a colorfully worded lawsuit that can be summed up in one of its complaints, "no recount process in this country is as byzantine, labyrinthine, confusing, burdensome, and unfair, as in Pennsylvania." One issue the suit focused on was the unauditable DRE voting machines, "These DRE machines are the electronic equivalent of storing paper ballots in a giant, poorly guarded warehouse. Top computer experts believe their use in Pennsylvania is not only irresponsible, but reckless." The state of Pennsylvania eventually settled the case on February 9, 2018, by agreeing to a consent decree that included the above criteria.

Now all that's left is figuring out which machines counties should buy and how to pay for them.