OP-ED: Voting machine — if it ain't broke, don't fix it

State Sen. Mike Folmer
48th District

Citizens have a right to expect their votes will be both secure and accurate.  It’s a basic duty and a core responsibility of our constitutional republic.

After the 2016 presidential election and reports of Russian interference, many questions have been raised.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of State issued a directive to every county: "All voting systems purchased on or after February 9, 2018 must be the type that employs a voter-verifiable paper ballot or a voter-verifiable paper record of the votes cast by a voter.”

Following the department’s decree was another notice that every county must have voter-verifiable paper record systems by Dec. 31, 2019. To pay for this mandate, the administration pledged counties up to 50 percent reimbursement over six years using state money plus $14.15 million in federal funds. The total cost to replace every voting machine in every county across the commonwealth is estimated to be $125 million to $150 million.

Unfortunately, the governor’s financial promises to the counties were made without any coordination with the General Assembly, which has sole constitutional authority to make appropriations.  Every dollar counties are required to spend in compliance with gubernatorial mandates could translate into very real future county property tax increases.

Pennsylvania has not experienced many of the problems seen in other states — partly because our voting machines are not (and never have been) connected to the Internet in any way.

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Meanwhile, other states and municipalities have taken actions to change their voting systems. 

Prior to the 2018 General Election, some invested considerable resources to address cybersecurity concerns that experts had identified. Others simply wanted to improve the tabulation of votes.

Most notably, Florida's Broward County bought three high-speed scanners after the August 2018 Primary to address issues with mail ballots. Voting by mail in Broward County was scrutinized after Florida ACLU reports from both the 2012 and 2016 general elections said voters who cast mail ballots there were 10 times more likely to have their votes not counted. Broward County’s new machines were predicted to be able to process about 500 ballots an hour.

During the 2018 General Election, Broward was again the last Florida county to report election results. More troubling, vote tallies fluctuated — especially absentee ballots.  It took days to verify results. 

Meanwhile, voter confidence in the integrity of the election itself fell.

Senator Mike Folmer speaks during the Legislative Panel Discussion on the State Budget as the York County Economic Alliance hosts its Spring Legislative Luncheon at Wyndham Garden York in West Manchester Township, Thursday, May 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In New York and North Carolina, scanners jammed. A New York City councilor called his polling place a “mosh pit” because by the time he got to vote, all four of the scanners in his precinct were broken.

Pennsylvania’s rush to replace every voting machine in every county across the commonwealth before the 2020 presidential election has resulted in state Sen. John Gordner's proposed legislation to delay the planned replacement of voting systems. 

As chairman of the Senate State Government Committee with oversight over the Pennsylvania Department of State, I plan to hold a public hearing on this bill March 26.

There are simply too many unanswered questions that need to be addressed before anyone can assure Pennsylvania voters the 2020 elections will not have any of the problems experienced with systems in other states.

If the governor’s plan is implemented, it will be a test run during a contentious election with high turnout — not exactly the best circumstances to try anything new or to work out any bugs in the system to ensure a smooth roll-out.

Should we not delay the mass decertification of current voting machines, who’s going to assure citizens their 2020 votes will be secure and accurate?

As my mother used to say:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

— State Sen. Mike Folmer represents the 48th Senate District in the Pennsylvania State Legislature.