High-profile, bipartisan group calls on Wolf to boost Pa. election security

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

A bipartisan coalition of Washington, D.C., think tanks and advocacy organizations has asked Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to shore up Pennsylvania's election security ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

In a June 30 letter to the governor and secretary, 14 signatories listed six recommendations for state officials to implement, such as banning all voting technologies with internet connectivity, having paper ballot backups in case electronic machines malfunction and installing 24/7 video monitoring of all ballot-processing areas.

"There’s nothing wrong with voting with electronic machines or something, but there needs to be a paper backup for the actual vote so someone can double check it," said Grover Norquist, a longtime conservative activist and founder of Americans for Tax Reform.

Other signers included Ben Ptashnik of the National Election Defense Coalition, Robert Weissman of Public Citizen and Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks.

Voters exit Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church after voting in the Primary Election in York Township, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In addition to video monitoring, paper ballot backups and disconnecting from the internet, the letter writers also suggested that all voter verification receipts should be easy to read, that touch screens should be used only on a limited basis to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and that a post-election audit should be conducted.

But these suggestions aren't new to state officials.

"The Pennsylvania Department of State has already implemented or is in the process of implementing the majority of measures listed in the letter, and has been investing in many other critical election security and accessibility advances over the last several years," spokesperson Laura Weis wrote in an email Friday.

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Voter-verifiable paper ballots have already been mandated by the governor, and all 67 counties were required to have machines that produced a verifiable paper trail by the end of last year, in time for the 2020 presidential election.

In York County, that translated into paper ballots the voter marks by hand and then feeds through an electronic scanner.

But in other counties, such as Northampton and Philadelphia, voters cast their ballots on a touch screen machine and then receive a printed paper verification slip.

Aquene Freechild, who works for Public Citizen, a progressive consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., said this is a problem.

The paper ballot receipt is often difficult for voters to read or decipher, Freechild said, because the information on the paper is laid out differently than it was on the machine.

And the ballot receipts are often printed in small lettering, she said, further complicating the verification process.

FILE - In this Dec. 29, 2015 file photo, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks with members of the media at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Wolf is attacking local elected officials making plans to reopen in defiance of his shutdown orders as cowards deserting the pandemic battlefield. Wolf threatened Monday, May 11, 2020 to block aid to rebellious counties in an escalating political fight over his administration's handling of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Freechild mentioned a study in which researchers held a mock election to measure how often voters were able to spot errors in their ballot receipt that didn't match the way they voted.

The study found that 96% of voters didn't notice the errors, she said.

"I think the changes in the voting systems in Pennsylvania, overall, have been wonderful for security," she said of Wolf's paper trail requirement. But, "it’s not the solution long term, in our view, because so few voters catch the errors, and it’s not designed to be easily verified."

Another solution would be for more states to offer universal vote-by-mail, following the models used in states such as Colorado, she said.

In Colorado, all registered voters receive a mail-in ballot automatically. This resulted in a 9.4% increase in turnout, among Republicans and Democrats and independent voters, during the 2018 midterm elections, The Denver Post reported.

President Donald Trump and other Republicans have criticized universal vote-by-mail systems as being susceptible to fraud via ballot harvesting.

Freechild said states such as Montana, California and Arizona have secure systems that can be implemented elsewhere, but not everyone can afford to switch to a secure all-mail system.

"States like Pennsylvania need more money," she said.

Norquist said he wasn't familiar enough with the universal vote-by-mail systems to comment on how susceptible they are to fraud.

Aside from voting machines and audits, Freechild mentioned one more simple way to safeguard elections: young people need to volunteer to be poll workers so county officials don't have to cut back on polling locations.

The majority of poll workers are older people and the elderly, who are at high risk of complications from contracting COVID-19, Freechild said, and with many of them becoming fearful of exposure, counties across the state are struggling to staff their usual number of polling locations.

To entice more young people, she emphasized that it's a paying gig.

"It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a great way to serve your country, make sure the elections go well and make sure everyone can stay safe and healthy," she said.

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