The next time you vote for president in Centre County, you might be doing so on new machines.
In April, Pennsylvania’s Acting Secretary of State Robert Torres told all 67 counties to have verifiable, paper-based voting systems in place by Dec. 31, 2019 at the latest.
“We want to bring about the system upgrades so Pennsylvania voters are voting on the most secure and auditable equipment as promptly and feasibly as possible,” Torres said in the press release.
The idea wasn’t exactly met with open arms.
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Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins said a number of county commissioners from across the state tried to talk Torres’ staff out of the idea at the most recent county commissioners convention, but to no avail.
“It became pretty obvious at the commissioners convention that the secretary of state’s people weren’t going to budge. So at that point, it moved to the forefront of our concerns,” Higgins said.
Centre County is one of 13 counties in the state that uses a paper-based voting system. Elections and Voter Registration Director Joyce McKinley said the county’s current systems were made in 1996, with Higgins adding the refurbished machines were purchased about 11 years ago.
According to Higgins, the new machines will be faster, less digital, automate the write-in process and every vote will be recorded on a piece of paper that can be audited.
“We have this incredibly manual system and when you’re voting for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and things like that, it creates a tremendous amount of work for the local poll workers,” Higgins said. “We have some larger precincts where people have even misspelled Mickey Mouse, believe it or not, and so then it has to be recorded as a separate vote.”
He and the commissioners hope to have the new machines in place for the 2019 general election, but Higgins cautioned it was too early to tell because every county in the state is going to be making the same changes at the same time.
“Thinking about it optimistically, there is a chance — a small chance — that we might even have the new systems operational by the primary election of 2019,” Higgins said.
Upgrading to the new machines is expected to cost between $1.2 and $1.5 million, but Higgins said the numbers are a “very, very, very rough estimate.”
While the changes are being pushed at the federal and state levels to ensure security, Higgins said Centre County’s current systems are secure and definitively said they have not been hacked.
“In Centre County, it’ll pretty much be the same because we’ve been completely paper-based now for 11-plus years. For other counties that did go digital, the technology is actually going to sort of go backwards,” Higgins said. “Our equipment is 20 years old — I mean, we only use it two days a year — but at some point in the not horribly distant future, it’s probably a good idea for us to upgrade.”
Higgins said he believes Centre County would receive an estimated $150,000 of federal funding with a five percent match from the state — which was allocated $13.5 million of $380 million from the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2018.
When it comes to the remaining $1 million to upgrade the system, Higgins said the commissioners are hoping the state legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf will send additional funding to all 67 counties for “this very significant expenditure.”
Money aside, the systems will need to be upgraded at some point and Higgins and McKinley said the goal is to have a system that is as similar as possible to the one the county currently uses.
“It will not be a drastic change to the voter,” McKinley said. “It will be a smooth transition, not only for the voters of Centre County, but for our workers as well.”