Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday the state will use its authority to issue $90 million in new state debt to help its 67 counties purchase new, paper-based voting machines in time for the 2020 election cycle. Wolf’s decision came a few days after he vetoed legislation that would have provided a similar amount of money, but also contained measures he opposed, like a ban on straight-party voting.
The governor’s office said the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority, the agency that manages the state’s bond issues, will issue new bonds to fund grants from the Department of State to counties replacing old, touchscreen voting devices, which are seen as vulnerable in the wake of attempts by Russian government hackers to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.
With the grants, the state government would reimburse counties up to 60 percent of the cost of buying newer machines that produce paper records of individual ballots that can be physically audited. While Pennsylvanians vote on a mixture of digital and analog equipment, a vast majority — 83 percent — live in precincts that use direct-recording electronic machines, which do not produce paper trails.
Those devices, known as DREs, have been the targets of heavy criticism by election-security and cybersecurity experts. A 21-member commission convened by the University of Pittsburgh to study Pennsylvania’s election infrastructure issued a report in January stating that the devices pose a “clear and present danger” to the commonwealth.
Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Robert Torres issued a February 2018 order directing county election officials to replace their voting machines, and his successor, Kathy Boockvar, recently completed a statewide tour of expos featuring voting-machine vendors that offer paper-based systems.
But a statewide replacement in time for 2020 has long expected to be costly, with many estimates running between $125 million and $150 million. Pennsylvania has been distributing the $14.1 million federal election-security grant it received last year to its counties, and Wolf’s new $90 million bond should go a long way in covering the rest, said Chris Deluzio, a Pitt legal scholar who worked for the commission.
“Broad strokes, it seems like a great proposal to share costs,” Deluzio told StateScoop. “I think the amount of the money suggests the cost is substantial.”
Deluzio also said that the commission initially recommended that Wolf use a bond issue to help counties purchase new voting equipment, rather than go through a legislative appropriation, as a way to speed up the process.
“Under the Pennsylvania constitution, bonds may be used as a funding source for capital projects; public referendums are not required for such bonds,” the commission’s report read.
Wolf, a Democrat, had been poised to sign last week’s spending bill before Pennsylvania’s majority-Republican state legislature amended the bill to outlaw straight-ticket voting. Announcing his veto, Wolf said ending the straight-ticket option, which allows a voter to select every candidate in the same party at once rather than checking off each individual ballot line, could lead to confusion and long lines at polling places, potentially driving down overall participation.
But Deluzio said the bill’s original form had other faults, such as a weakening of the secretary of the commonwealth’s power to certify new voting equipment.
Still, even with the $90 million in new bonds, Pennsylvania’s counties still face a tight deadline to get new voting machines in place. Torres’ February 2018 order gave counties until December 31 of this year to choose new, paper-based devices and get them in place for the state’s presidential primary next April 28. (Counties already using paper ballots can get an extension until 2021.) That gives counties less than 10 months to select and acquire new machines, distribute them to precincts, train poll workers and educate voters.
“It’ll be critical to deal with the implementation, and that’ll turn on the counties,” Deluzio said, but he added it’s not an impossible timeline, pointing to Virginia, which in 2017 phased out DREs for paper-based machines two months before a gubernatorial election.
Wolf’s office said Tuesday that 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s counties have “made progress” in choosing one of seven options approved by the state, and that nine counties have already deployed new machines for use in local races this year.
“Pennsylvania counties are well on their way to replacing their voting systems and I applaud their tremendous commitment to protecting our elections,” Wolf said in a press release. “I remain committed to supporting their efforts and this funding will help the counties to complete that process.”