New voting machines are coming to Centre County. How will they be different?

As part of a swift timetable for all Pennsylvania counties to have new voting machines with verifiable paper trails, the Department of State hosted a voting machine expo in Centre County Thursday night for residents, poll workers and commissioners to test and give commentary on new voting machines.

“This voting equipment that you see in here tonight is voting equipment that has been examined, certified to newer security standards, all of this voting equipment has a voter verified paper ballot,” said Johnathan Marks, commissioner for the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation at the Pennsylvania Department of State. “Currently, in Pennsylvania, nearly 80 percent of the voters vote on equipment ... that does not have a voter verified paper ballot, so ... that’s the most important component that we’re focusing on relative to security, but it’s really about educating voters.”

All five vendors that were present at Thursday’s expo have been approved by the federal government, but only one machine from one vendor — Unisyn Voting Systems OpenElect sytem — was approved by the state government, according to Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins.

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“We’re looking forward to receiving feedback from the citizens, and most especially, from our election workers. Because they’re the ones that show up at 6 in the morning and are often working until 10 at night,” Higgins said. “So if we could receive some slight productivity improvements with the new (voting) equipment, that would be great, but our focus is gonna be, paper based, audit-able, very transparent, voter-verifiable ballots, and the ability to rerun elections for months into the future.”

When will the new voting systems be in place?

The DOS has mandated that all new voting systems be in place by the 2020 presidential election. Centre County residents should expect commissioners to place an order for voting machines by February, said Higgins, pending state approval of more voting systems. The new machines would most likely first be used in the 2020 primary election.

Centre County, unlike many counties in Pennsylvania, has a paper ballot system, where voters mark their choices and feed the paper into a machine that saves the paper ballots and the data from those ballots in its system. But Marks said every system in Pennsylvania needs upgrading, no matter the type.

“Every system (at the expo) ... is a system that employs a voter-verifiable paper ballot. Every system in here ... has also been examined and certified to recent federal and state security standards,” Marks said. “None of the current equipment used in the counties are certified to those standards. And frankly, they’re certified to standards that were written back in the 1990s when the Federal Election Commission was doing the standard writing.”

Fifteen-year-old machines with dated software and operating systems, Marks said, are “at the end of their useful lives.”

Will new machines be an adjustment for voters?

Chuck Kurtz, a Centre County resident, said he isn’t sure some of the new machines will solve the problems elected officials are talking about.

“It seems excessively complex compared to filling in the circle,” he said of Dominion Voting Systems’ touch screen voting machine that prints out a paper ballot with the voter’s results to feed into another machine that stores the data on an SD card. Dominion also offers a paper ballot option similar to Centre County’s current system.

Older residents might struggle with the new layout, said Nell Hanssen, also a Centre County resident.

Both thought it would be easy to miss a couple of steps in the voting process while using the tablet, and said the printed out paper ballot was not easy to read compared to the regular paper ballot.

The problem doesn’t seem to be the layout of the voting machine, but the manner in which votes are stored and counted, said Kurtz.

“I think paper ballot option, but (with) a better counting system” to verify votes, he said.

Most of the other vendors offered both a touch screen and paper ballot option. The touch screen doubles as an ADA-compliant voting machine, so that counties don’t have to purchase separate machines for visually impaired or other disabled voters.

How much will the new machines cost?

Centre County has allocated $930,000 for the purchase of new voting machines, Board of Commissioners Chairman Michael Pipe told the CDT in early November. Of that amount, Centre County will contribute $750,000 while $180,000 is coming from the federal and state governments.

In choosing the new voting machines, Higgins said cost is only one of the factors commissioners will be considering.

“You have to look at the cost of having to change voter behavior for tens of thousands of people,” he said. “So if it’s a slightly higher cost system, but it would involve no change from the voter standpoint, we would lean that way ... we may end up spending more money to get a system that’s just closer to what people have been used to.”