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Voting machines to be replaced by 2020

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration told Pennsylvania’s counties Thursday that he wants them to replace their electronic voting systems with machines that leave a verifiable paper trail by the end of 2019, although counties warned that the price tag is a major problem.

Counties estimate the cost will be $125 million and said the greatest single impediment to buying new voting machines is the lack of a funding source.

In Schuylkill County, which has 363 machines, Commissioners’ Chairman George F. Halcovage Jr. fears taxpayers will be stuck with the bill for replacements.

“Our machines are safe, they are secure, they are accurate, we keep up with the technology,” he said.

He said it cost the county more than $2 million to replace the machines in 2006, under the Help America Vote Act.

“We’re being told the average cost of the new machines is over $3,500 per machine. The costs alone are going to be enormous.

“In 2006, for HAVA, over $100 million in federal funding was made available. However, from the last round of funding, Pennsylvania is only getting $13.5 million from the federal government. With the state’s 5 percent match, that brings the figure to $14.1 million for the 67 counties. That comes to $210,484 per county, and that’s if everybody gets the same amount,” Halcovage said.

“Unless counties can get assistance in getting funding, taxpayers will have to make up the difference,” he said.

“It’s great being told you must do something, but it’s another unfunded mandate. You must do this, but we’re not providing you with the funding for it,” Halcovage said.

In Carbon County, with at least 137 machines, Commissioners Thomas J. Gerhard, William J. O’Gurek, and Chairman Wayne E. Nothstein are also worried about the impact on taxpayers.

“Wayne, Tom and I have been aware for some time now that the county is going to have to replace its voting machines, and it will definitely be a financial challenge for the board of commissioners and the taxpayers,” O’Gurek said.

He said the county recently reviewed a state certified system sold by Election Systems and Software, from which it had purchased its first machines.

“While not set in stone, the estimated cost would be $890,000. ES&S will be on the Co-Stars purchasing program, meaning the county would not have to bid the machines,” O’Gurek said.

The price would include 148 “marking devices” (machines) which are basically equipment that will allow the voter to select the candidates of their choice. The voter’s choices would then be recorded on a card that will be inserted into a scanner that would record the vote.

“We currently use 137 machines in a presidential election and need some spares, so we asked the price to be for 150 ‘marking devices’ and 51 scanners, one for each voting district. The estimated cost includes software and licenses,” he said.

Carbon would receive about $67,000, or $1.60 per voter, from the government to help pay for the new machines.

“While the commissioners will certainly be thankful for any amount of money the county would receive, the fact is that amount is only about 7.5 percent of what it will cost our taxpayers. The county will be responsible for about $823,000, which will be a real hardship to our budget. Given the uncertainty of all of this, I’m pretty certain the new system will not be in place by 2019, but could possibly be purchased and ready to use by the next statewide election, which will be in 2020,” O’Gurek said.

Wolf’s administration said it believes it is possible for counties to update their machines by the November 2019 election and that it is working with counties to make it affordable.

“There’s a lot of areas the state can weigh in to help make this something that is absolutely affordable for the counties,” Wolf said Thursday.

That includes making financing available and negotiating a good deal on the machines, although Wolf said he had not gotten to the point yet of asking the Republican-controlled Legislature for money.

In February, Wolf ordered counties that planned to replace their electronic voting systems to buy machines that leave a paper trail, a safeguard against hacking.

The move followed September’s disclosure by the federal government that election systems in at least 21 states, including Pennsylvania, were targeted by hackers before the 2016 presidential election. Only Illinois reported that hackers had succeeded in breaching its systems. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said there’s no evidence that vote tallies or registration databases were altered.

“It’s important because everybody needs to have confidence in the voting process, and given what is alleged to have happened in 2016, I think there’s some concern that maybe people aren’t as confident as they should be,” Wolf said.

The vast majority of Pennsylvania’s fleet of more than 20,000 electronic voting machines leave no paper trail, according to a 2014 tally by state election officials.

Pennsylvania is one of 13 states where most or all voters use antiquated machines that store votes electronically without printed ballots or other paper-based backups that could be used to double-check the vote, according to researchers at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Pennsylvania’s Department of State, which oversees elections, released an invitation for bid for new voting systems last week, and counties will be able to buy voting machines that meet the department’s certification requirements.

The department cannot necessarily force a county to buy new voting machines but, at some point, the department will decertify the voting systems currently in use, it said Thursday.

Still, the agency does not plan to decertify the current machines until new ones are in place, the agency said.

To help buy machines, Pennsylvania is getting $13.5 million from Congress’ recent appropriation of $380 million for election security, Wolf’s administration said.

The Department of State said it is too early to project a total cost, because it will depend on negotiated discounts, lease terms, financing options and other factors.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Electronic voting machines, like this one seen in the lobby of the Carbon County Elections Bureau, should be replaced by 2020, Gov. Tom Wolf announced last week. BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS