Lawmaker questions Gov. Wolf’s drive for new voting machines

Marc Levy
Associated Press

HARRISBURG – A top Republican state senator is drafting legislation to prevent Gov. Tom Wolf from forcing Pennsylvania counties to buy new voting machines, a priority for the Democratic governor to ensure the machines are in place in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Wolf has promoted the effort as a safeguard against hacking, since four in five Pennsylvania voters use electronic voting machines that lack an auditable paper trail.

But Senate Majority Whip, Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, said Wednesday he wants to require legislative approval before Wolf — or any Pennsylvania governor — can force counties to buy new machines and set up a commission to gather public input and develop recommendations.

Gordner said his plan does not necessarily have the backing of the Senate’s Republican leadership. Rather, he said, it springs from the concerns of county commissioners in his district.

In a co-sponsorship memo distributed to senators, Gordner said it is “questionable whether or not it is reasonable or necessary to decertify every single machine” in Pennsylvania.

Machines in some counties are not vulnerable to being hacked because they are not “tied to the internet,” Gordner wrote, and speeding new machines into service in 2020 leaves no time to work out bugs ahead of a national election.

York County Voting Technology Coordinator Casey Brady removes a circuit board from a non-working voting machine at a storage warehouse in an undisclosed area Thursday, June 7, 2018. He's been in the job for three months. "It's been a lot to pick up pretty quick," he said. He said the county has 624 working machines and 45 which are in need or repair, or used for parts. In April, Gov. Tom Wolf directed all counties to replace machines, like those used in York County, with new voting machines—all offering paper trails—by 2020. Bill Kalina photo

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In any case, financing the machines is causing angst in county government offices and Wolf’s plan to ask the Republican-controlled Legislature for state aid to cover at least half of the cost means lawmakers should have a role in determining how the money is spent, Gordner said.

“The governor did this on his own without any consultation with the legislature, which he seems to be doing a lot of,” he said.

Gordner said he hopes his bill will get a committee hearing in January, after the Legislature formally begins its two-year session.

Counties estimate it will cost $125 million to replace voting systems across the state. Some counties are making plans to borrow the money, while Wolf’s administration is asking vendors whether they will accept multi-year financing.

Most of the counties use voting systems that store votes electronically without printed ballots or other paper-based backups that can be used to double-check the vote.

The majority of voting machines in 17 counties, including two in Gordner’s district, scan paper ballots, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees state elections.

However, the department said those systems also must be replaced because they lack the availability of technical support and don’t meet current prevailing standards for accessibility and security.

Top Republican lawmakers have been largely silent about Wolf’s order to buy new voting machines and noncommittal about whether the state should contribute cash.

In April, Wolf gave counties a deadline of 2020 to switch to voting machines that leave a paper trail after federal authorities said Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states , including Pennsylvania, during the 2016 presidential election.

The election technology in Pennsylvania and other states using all-electronic machines is so unreliable and vulnerable to hacking that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in August joined calls for states to adopt machines with “a verifiable and auditable ballot” by the 2020 presidential election.

Blocking such a move in Pennsylvania could be complicated by last week’s settlement in federal court in which Wolf’s administration affirmed its commitment to press counties to buy voting systems that leave a verifiable paper trail by 2020.