EDITORIAL: Shore up Pa. voting system before 2020

York Dispatch Editorial Board

As Election Day spills well into overtime in states like Florida and Georgia, Pennsylvania’s elections overseers must take note. There’s a fine line between successful elections — which were generally the case in York County and throughout Pennsylvania this month — and consequential complications. For the good of the state’s voters, candidates and governments, Pennsylvania must stay on the right side of that line.

To be sure, Election Day was far from problem-free in the Keystone State. Complaints of malfunctioning machines and long lines came out of Philadelphia, the ACLU said absentee ballots weren’t distributed in a timely manner, and a western Pennsylvania man was arrested after threatening violence when told he wasn’t registered to vote.

Still, that’s nothing like the confusion surrounding votes in Florida, where razor-thin election results have forced recounts in both the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, and Georgia, where allegations of voter suppression have clouded the race for governor both before and since Election Day.

Some of these problems are manmade. Georgia’s gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp, in his role as state attorney general oversaw his own election — a wolf-guarding-the-henhouse scenario that is unacceptable on its face. And Florida Senate candidate Rick Scott, the state’s governor, has charged without proof that Democrats are “committing fraud” to steal the election. Such statements provide grist for conspiracists alleging wrongdoing without evidence and stoke tensions in already difficult situations.

As these knotty races are sorted out, state leaders in Pennsylvania should turn their attention to voting matters at home.

As in many states, Pennsylvania’s voting machines and elections infrastructure are aging. That’s a problem. Recall, Pennsylvania was one of 21 states where voting systems were targeted by Russian hackers in 2016. While there has been no word of similar attempts in the 2018 go-around, elections experts do not expect the problem to simply go away. And York County’s voting machines have been singled out for having “significant security weaknesses.”

So, York County and Pennsylvania’s other 66 counties must follow through on the Wolf administration’s order to have new voting machines in place by the end of next year. The up-to-date machines would not only provide more robust protections, they would include long-overdue mechanisms for establishing a paper trail for all votes.

Pennsylvania remains one of only 14 states that cannot provide a verifiable written record of votes. In an increasingly divided electoral landscape, where voter turnout has spiked and races are routinely decided by fractions of percentage points, such tools are vital.

Gov. Tom Wolf must see to it that adequate funds are made available. The state’s approximately $14 million initial investment won’t go very far; the statewide update is estimated to cost $125 million.

Just as important as secure elections systems, however, are obstacle-free paths to the voting booth.

Pennsylvania lawmakers, thankfully, have largely refrained from taking the lead of states like Texas, Georgia, and too many others that have moved aggressively in recent years to raise the hurdle for casting ballots.

Still, Pennsylvania legislators can grease the voting skids easily enough: No-excuse early voting and same-day registration — or at the very least moving up the registration deadline of 30 days before elections — are two simple steps that leap to mind.

Free and fair elections are the bulwark of American democracy. And yet, they are being battered on all sides. External agents like Russia seek to hack the system to foment confusion and undermine confidence. Internal actors like the Georgia candidate Kemp use all but non-existent incidents of voter fraud to justify harsh barriers to voting.

Pennsylvania must counter both of these forces. Update the state’s voting machinery to ensure secure and accountable balloting, and streamline the state’s voting laws to ensure every resident is encouraged to vote and every vote counts.