County officials: Wolf's voting machine pitch better than nothing
Local officials are praising Gov. Tom Wolf's most recent push for state funding to help counties replace their outdated, vulnerable voting machines — but experts say it doesn't go far enough.
In his budget address Tuesday, Feb. 5, the Democrat proposed a five-year plan that would offer $75 million in relief to counties to replace voting machines — more than half of the estimated $125 million statewide price tag.
If Wolf's proposal survives the Legislature's budget process, the pot of money would be the first state-supplied funding since Wolf last year mandated counties to replace their voting machines with models that include a verifiable paper trail by Dec. 31, 2019, in time for the 2020 presidential elections.
Praise from local and state officials: While Wolf spokesman JJ Abbott said the state is still figuring out how the money would be distributed, York County Commissioner Chris Reilly is hoping the Legislature takes the governor's lead.
"Would we prefer full funding? Of course," Reilly said. "But half would be a welcome occurrence. We appreciate the governor stepping up."
The county previously planned to use a bond issue to fund the estimated $6 million to $8 million replacement cost of its 700 machines, but if Wolf's proposal were to come to fruition, the county could pull the money from its general fund, Reilly said.
The Pennsylvania Department of State is strongly considering decertifying machines that don't meet the state's new standards by the end of the year, putting additional pressure on counties such as York to get funding in place.
York County did receive $500,000 last year from the state's $13.5 million it was gifted by a federal spending package to enhance election security, but calls for another wave of funding from Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, haven't seen success.
The county is therefore expecting to have to bear the burden of at least some of the funding, but the specific vendor and the exact dollar amount for the machines is yet to be decided.
However, the county's ad-hoc committee tasked with handling such matters is nearing the end of its mission, as commissioners are submitting their preferred machine vendors from which the official pick and financial figures can be finalized.
There are currently four certified machines, and two are still in the certification process. Reilly declined to identify his vendor of choice, citing ongoing negotiations.
Is it not enough? Although Wolf's proposal would relieve some of the funding stress from the county, election security experts are maintaining their call for full funding — including the state's former deputy secretary for elections and administration.
Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit organization that advocates for accurate, transparent elections, suggested Wolf should allow the 17 counties already using paper ballots to keep their machines until more resources are found.
Schneider cited a report released last week by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security — a Pittsburgh-based group examining election security — that suggested legislators fully fund the replacements.
“Verified Voting calls on the Pennsylvania Legislature to appropriate additional funding to subsidize the cost of replacement," Schneider said. "... Given the threat of hacking and other cyber attacks, the cost of replacing Pennsylvania’s current systems in 50 counties far outweighs the cost of leaving our elections vulnerable.”
But those costs are still a worry in the Legislature — Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, previously questioned where the voting machine funding would come from because "financial challenges are numerous."
Revenue sources to fund the five-year plan are still unclear, which leaves the Legislature to balance secure elections and taxpayer funds.
“Maintaining the integrity of our elections process is very important,” Phillips-Hill said. “But we’re going to have to make sure that this is done in the best possible way to respect taxpayers."
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.