By Emily Previti, PA Post
Q: What’s changed since the last presidential election?
A: Most voting machines used in last week’s general election now produce a voter-verifiable paper trail. That means the machines scan paper ballots filled out by hand, generate paper ballots for scanning, or produce receipts for each individual ballot cast electronically. Any machines that don’t meet that standard are supposed to be replaced before the April 2020 primary. The state-mandated mass upgrade stems from the settlement of a lawsuit over vulnerabilities in Pennsylvania’s election system. Previously, the majority of counties used touchscreen direct recording electronic (DRE) machines that only tallied votes.
Q: What’s the concern with these new machines?
A: Some new machines are ballot marking devices (BMDs). With BMDs, voters fill out ballots on a touchscreen (versus by hand). Then, the machine prints and tabulates the ballot or prints it out for the voter to scan separately. Critics say this voting method leaves an opportunity for bad actors to manipulate outcomes — even if the machines aren’t connected to the Internet. Risks remain with a comparably more secure hand-marked ballot system because they, too, must pass through a scanner. Critics also point to other processes, such as ballot programming and compiling vote totals, which typically involves transferring data via USB flash drives. And they’ve flagged the use of barcodes on ballots because they present another opportunity for manipulation and can’t be verified by voters as reflecting their intended choices.
Q: Where have we seen problems and why?
A: We heard reports of problems across the state in last week’s general election. Voters reported long wait times in some counties, partly because they and election officials were adjusting to a new system, but human error was also a factor. In Northampton County, officials flagged tabulation errors in several races and haven’t yet figured out how that happened. In Jefferson County, scanners rejected ballots because permanent markers used by voters early in the day bled through the paper. Officials fixed the problem by switching to ball point pens. Other counties had scanner problems, too: York printed ballots on the wrong size paper, for example; in Mercer and Chester, mailed ballots jammed scanners because they’d been folded too many times.
Q: What’s being done to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
A: That varies by county. One example is the use of pens instead of permanent markers, though machine vendors actually introduced the idea of using Sharpies because marker ink dries faster and limits smudging that also can cause scanners to misread ballots.. Additional and/or different (faster/higher-capacity) scanners could help with waits and scanner jamming and might be necessary with the advent of no-excuse absentee voting and the anticipated uptick in mailed ballots (larger, sturdier return envelopes could help there, too).