When it came down to it, Cumberland County took the advice of one of its own poll workers in selecting a new voting system to conform with state requirements: “Just get the big machine, it’s the best.”
During Wednesday’s board of elections meeting, county Commissioner Jim Hertzler read out several comments from elections supervisors who had reviewed multiple machines, before the board moved to select the ExpressVote XL as the county’s new voting system.
But while the board has the power to choose the method of voting for the county, the county commissioners are the ones who have to approve the finances, which are daunting.
“At this point in time it looks like the state may leave us high and dry,” Hertzler said, although not all hope is lost until a final budget deal is struck in Harrisburg.
The new voting machines, a product of the Election Systems & Software corporation, comply with Pennsylvania’s mandate that voting systems must be auditable by paper backup for the 2020 primary election.
The machines are designed to meet the state mandate with a minimum of confusion for voters. The new devices feature 32-inch touch screens that record votes electronically and create a paper ballot, verifiable by the voter, that is then physically stored in the machine.
The paper backup process, however, is done automatically. The machine prints a ballot card that the voter can see to review behind a clear plastic guard, but cannot remove. This eliminates the risk of voters thinking their paper ballot is a receipt of some sort and taking it with them.
“I was impressed by this and think it’s the best choice,” Hertzler said.
While considered to be a deluxe model, the price on the ExpressVote XL is competitive, with the county being offered a deal below the posted price through the state’s contracting system, Hertzler said.
That doesn’t mean they’re cheap. The total cost of replacing voting machines in all 118 of Cumberland County’s voting precincts will come to just under $4 million over a 5-year lease agreement with ES&S.
That cost includes a maintenance deal as well as paper stock,Cumberland County Controller Al Whitcomb said. The all-in-one machines also won’t require additional poll workers or bureau of elections staff, Whitcomb said.
“Those are big factors that feed into this decision,” Whitcomb said.
When Gov. Tom Wolf announced last year that the Pennsylvania Department of State would de-certify machines that didn’t meet paper trail requirements before the 2020 primary, he also pledged to include funding in the state budget that would cover half of the cost.
Wolf’s budget proposal this year included $15 million to help counties replace their machines. That same funding level over the next several years would add up to cover half of the $125 to $150 million estimated cost of replacing voting systems statewide, Wolf’s office said.
While that money was in Wolf’s budget proposal at the beginning of the year, it does not appear to have made it through legislative negotiations. The budget that passed the House of Representatives this week does not have any voting machine replacement money.
“Even though the budget that was passed by the House didn’t include funding for the voting machines, apparently this is still under discussion,” Hertzler said.
The county’s bureau of elections received a letter this week from state Sen. Mike Folmer, chair of the Senate State Government Committee, inquiring how the state’s paper backup directives have impacted the county.
Folmer’s letter included questions about the county’s voting machine replacement plans prior to the state mandate, and any issues the bureau of elections foresaw in fulfilling the requirement.
Earlier this year, the state Senate passed Senate Bill 48, which would delay the mass decertification of voting machines until a legislative commission can review the reasons for the change and agree on a long-term funding method.
The state House took up the bill last week, but amended it to include removing language from the state elections code regarding straight-part voting, indicating that the machine replacement issue may now be tethered to the debate over ticket voting.
At this point, Hertzler and Whitcomb said, moving forward with legislation simply to delay the decertification of voting machines is a moot point because most of the counties that would need to replace their machines under the mandate are already well on their way to doing so.
Last month, the Department of State said that nine counties had replaced their machines with paper-backup systems prior to the 2019 primary, and that 31 counties have taken “official action” toward buying compliant machines.
The state has disbursed money to help these counties defray the cost of new machines, but that money left over from federal appropriations under the Help America Vote Act, not new state funding.
Cumberland County has been told it will get approximately $274,000 in HAVA funds once it signs a purchase or lease agreement for new machines, according to Bethany Salzarulo, director of the county’s bureau of elections.