York County preps for large turnout as e-voting machines age

Greg Gross

York County election officials are preparing for a larger-than-normal turnout in the Pennsylvania primary that's just a week away.

All 159 polling places will have one or two extra poll workers on hand in addition to the five or six that staff them each election, said Nikki Suchanic, head of the county's elections and voter registration office.

Pennsylvania's late positioning on the primary calendar usually renders votes for presidential candidates cast here almost meaningless, since clear front-runners often are already decided.

But with no real front-runner in either party, the Keystone State is expected to play a large factor in deciding which two candidates will get the nominations.  And that means a projected increase in turnout on Tuesday, April 26.

"I don't know where to even begin in terms of projecting a turnout," Suchanic said when asked what she thought it might be.

In the 2008 primary, when the Democratic ticket hadn't been decided between Hillary Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama, 50 percent, or 52,007, of the county's registered Democrats headed to the polls. The overall primary day turnout that year was 83,692, or 34 percent.

For the 2008 November election, turnout was 187,090voters, or 62 percent, according to the elections office.

Other measures: To help reduce wait time for voters, the election's office also will provide more of the books the electorate must sign before casting ballots, Suchanic said.

But if lines do grow, voters should have patience since additional voting machines can't be moved in to meet demand.

Each polling place has an assigned number of voting machines, determined by the number of voters registered to that polling place. So it's impossible to move a machine or two from a slower polling place to busier places, she said.

But if half of the voting machines at a polling place break down, paper ballots are used. To her knowledge, paper ballots haven't had to be used since the electronic voting machines debuted in 2006, Suchanic said.

Voting machines: This primary will mark 10 years since York County ditched the old lever voting machines in favor of the more modern electronic touchscreen voting machines in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election and the confusing process of recounting — and sometimes deciphering — paper ballots.

A federal law, the Help America Vote Act of 2002, supplied funding to voting jurisdictions to switch to electronic voting machines. But those machines are now entering the final phase of their expected 10- to 15-year lifespan.

The county spent $2.5 million for 700 Sequoia AVC Edge machines; about $1.85 million of that was reimbursed by the federal government.

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Though the machines are aging out, Suchanic said they still work fine and no technological issues have risen throughout the decade they've been in use.

"I think we have good equipment here in York County," she said. "I'm confident in the machines."

A diagnostic test is performed on each machine before each election, with officials running a voting simulation. Any glitches are addressed before the machine is used for voting, and the machines are certified by the state.

52 poll workers look on during one of sixteen training sessions, this one held at Ronal Tool Company in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Paper trail: When the county was eyeing switching to the electronic machines, some people raised concerns about the lack of a paper trail to verify individual votes.

Pamela Smith, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Verified Voting, said those concerns are still legitimate. The California-based group's mission is to safeguard elections, and it lobbies for legislation that promotes verifiable election systems.

Votes cast using the AVC Edge are stored on three memory drives, two of which are flash drives in the machine. The problem, Smith said, is there's no way to independently verify each vote is correct.

"If it came down to a close race in Pennsylvania, you can't really do a recount," Smith said.

She compared storing the same data in three different memory units to making photocopies of a letter that has a typo. There are now copies of a letter, but the mistake remains.

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Printing a copy of each cast ballot would alleviate concerns and would allow voters to verify their votes before the leave a polling place, she said.

However, issues over a voter's secret ballot could come about if each ballot is printed, Suchanic said.

Other issues: As the machines age, parts are becoming harder to find, and the technology may not work as well as it once did.

One issue that has cropped up in parts of the country is what's known as "vote flips." That's when a person touches the screen to vote for a candidate but the name of another candidate is selected.

Vote flips are generally the result of calibration issues, which become more likely to happen in older machines, Smith said.

In this file photo, York County Elections and Voter Registration Director Nikki Suchanic, right, listens to Evelin Burgos, second from left in front row, as she asks a question at a poll workers training session held at Ronal Tool Company in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

New machines coming? With York County's machines getting older, the county will likely have to start exploring options to replace them.

"I think it's going to be a long-range process, not a short-range process," said Commissioner Chris Reilly.

But what machines the county could purchase may be predetermined by the market.

Numerous voting jurisdictions have turned to using paper ballots, which are then scanned into a computer, driving the industry toward paper-ballot scanner technology. Smith said that method is more reliable and provides voters with the knowledge their ballots can be verified two separate ways.

"They should be able to know their vote was counted right," she said. "Most the country votes that way now."

One thing, however, is nearly certain. There likely won't be any federal funds to buy new machines.

"It's going to be on the states and the local jurisdictions to make this happen," Smith said.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.

Protecting elections

Election Protection will have staff available to assist voters during and before the April 26 primary.

The nonprofit voter protection coalition, led by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, works to ensure all voters have the opportunity to cast ballots and can provide them with information, guidance and assistance, according to an Election Protection news release.

Voters who encounter problems can call 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday, April 25 and from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Election Day for assistance.

For more information about Election Protection, go to 866ourvote.org.