In spite of minimal media coverage, there has been a significant amount of grumbling on social media with regard to Montgomery County’s recent Primary Election. A good deal of it is related to the new voting machines. But there is also a significant contingent of Republicans who are upset the infamous Fake Green Ballots.
In the interest of mercy on your coffee break, we’ll take these issues one at a time.
This post will focus only on the new voting machines. Some background:
In April of 2018, Governor Tom Wolf ordered counties to replace their voting machines with ones that produce a paper record for the voter to verify their vote is recorded correctly before casting their ballot. Counties were given until 2020 to comply.
Penn Live covered the issue extensively in February 2019:
In a hard line of questioning, Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery County, asked if there had been any machines hacked in Pennsylvania.
Boockvar testified not to her knowledge.
Yet, he said, “We have a rush to 2020. We have a huge expense to our taxpayers. We have vendors who are using excessively high interest rate proposals. We have governments that don’t have a way to pay for these. And we have no example, none, of a real legitimate issue. Why 2020? Why the rush?“
Boockvar responded that Pennsylvania was one of 21 states known to have experienced some hacking attempts of their election systems in the 2016 presidential election.
“Almost all, if not every single one of those 13 states will be upgrading by 2020,” she said. “So if we don’t, we will certainly be the only swing state, if not the only state, left in the country without a voter verified paper trailer. It’s not a position that I think any of us at the county, state or federal level want to be in.”
What’s more, she said homeland security and other experts all agree that states should upgrade to a voter verified paper trail voting system by the next presidential election. She said counties were given more than two years’ notice to make arrangements to replace their voting machines.
One more little thing pushing this big spend:
Also driving the need to move swiftly to replace the machines is a settlement of a federal vote-counting lawsuit that 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein filed against the state. To end the lawsuit, the state committed to transitioning to voter verified machines before the 2020 presidential primary.
Oh. So much for the “best practices” blah blah blah.
While the Counties continued to gripe about the spend, Montgomery County was proudly ahead of the curve to be in compliance with the new mandate:
Montgomery County is one of a handful of counties that will have new machines in place for the May primary, and more will be ready for November. But the counties are struggling, with officials saying money and timing are the biggest issues. Some counties had planned to buy new systems in a few years, but now they are being forced to do so at a time when minimal funds are available.
“Cambria County does not have the money to pay for this mandate and may need to pursue financing options,” said chief clerk Michael Gelles. The county had expected to use its machines for several more years, and was holding off on upgrades until it learns what state money becomes available. “The machines have adequate life and security,” Gelles said. “The county should be allowed to make replacements on its own schedule.”
Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of State last year ordered counties to buy new, more-secure voting machines that leave a paper trail. Experts say that is best practice to ensure proper postelection audits and recounts and instill voter confidence. However, the upgrades carry a price tag up to $153 million, according to the state, and so far only $14.1 million has been made available.
Wanda Murren, spokesperson for the department, said it knows of 15 counties that have selected new voting systems. She provided a statement by acting Secretary Kathy Boockvar saying she expects seven to 12 of the 67 counties to have new machines for the primary election this May, and a majority to have them by November.
“We are very pleased with the progress being made by the counties,” she wrote. “Election directors and county commissioners have been incredibly dedicated and thorough in researching and weighing their options.”
Generally, the counties furthest along are those that already were preparing to buy new machines and had set money aside.
“We were underway, which kind of gave us a head start,” said Lee Soltysiak, the chief clerk and chief operating officer for Montgomery County. The county’s current machines were purchased in 1996 and nearing the end of their usable lives.
So now you know the how and why of the new voting machines. Let’s now talk about how the election went down.
The Ghost in the Machine
We’ll begin in Hatboro, where a question on the ballot regarding the funding of the library apparently threw the voting machines into a tailspin, but only on the Republican side of the ballot. A relatively quiet recount took place in tiny Hatboro, but the results of that recount are startling, to say the very least:
Some of these vote total changes are troubling indeed. These are not a couple of absentee ballots forgotten in somebody’s trunk. These vote totals were enough to change the election results for the entire County: Before the recount, Joe Gale was top vote getter and Fred Conner was second; after the recount, their positions are reversed.
While there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the vote total discrepancies, there is, in fact, a rather simple explanation: A programming error.
Ahead of election night, a technician for the manufacturer of the voting machines was asked to fix a glitch that changed the order of the candidates listed on the ballot, according to Corcoran. However, the technician’s fix inadvertently caused some of the ballots deposited into the machines to be sent to a compartment meant only for those that bore the names of write-in candidates.
Savvy poll workers in Hatboro noticed the error and notified the county, concerned about the accuracy of the results, Corcoran said. No other municipalities in the county were affected, officials said.
OK, we all understand human error. But I have a couple of problems with this explanation.
Perhaps it’s just how the County spokesman explained it, but if the compartment is supposed to be secure, and it certainly looks as if it is, then how exactly did “savvy poll workers” notice that ballots were being deposited into the wrong compartment?
Perhaps poll workers noticed an over abundance of kicked back ballots with error messages, which could certainly alert them that something was amiss…?
However, with the number of offices on the ballot, anecdotal evidence I’ve been unofficially monitoring suggests that voters were particularly annoyed that their deliberate “undervotes” (the fact that they left some offices blank, choosing not to vote for one or more of the candidates) registered as an error on the machine. All errors kick back the ballot and give the voter an opportunity to change or adjust his vote.
How did Hatboro poll workers differentiate between “misread” errors, “overvote” errors and “undervote” errors?
Finally, if you are County Spokesperson John Corcoran, why mention the ballots being deposited into the incorrect compartment as part of the explanation in the first place?
The whole thing is unnecessarily confusing and could easily be cleared up with a simple press release from the County. Instead we get this:
Oh wait. I posted the wrong video. Here’s what I meant to post:
It was an isolated incident. The situation is well in hand. No need for concern. We’re working the bugs out. Growing pains.
Sorry, not sorry, but I don’t buy it. It was so very, very, very important to get these paper ballot voting machines in before the Presidential next year so that we could make sure that the Russians weren’t tampering with our election. This new machine is supposed to instill voter confidence and be easier to recount.
Instead, we have multiple instances of significant mistakes and the County is just sweeping it under the rug.
I know. Shocking, right?
By the way, why is Joe Gale the only commissioner present at that presser? Where were our majority commissioners, Val Arkoosh and Ken Lawrence?
Oh that’s right. They were at a rally with the Governor working on stomping all over another one of your constitutional rights.
Every Step You Take, I’ll be Watching You
In addition to treating my deliberate undervote as an error, I had several other problems with the new voting system.
Maybe it was the setup at my polling place, but I did not find the privacy shields very effective at keeping my vote private. Other voters were walking behind me as I was seated at the voting station coloring in my ovals and they could certainly look right over my shoulder and cheat off my paper if they wanted to.
I was never given the manilla folder (importantly labeled “privacy sleeve”) in which to carry my completed ballot up to the machine. I ended up holding the ballot against my body, which I found awkward and grade-schoolish.
The Machine Operator did not specify that the ballot could be placed face down on the machine, and he was close enough to the machine that he could read my ballot.
I never got a tear off paper that was supposed to act as “proof” of my vote. For my money, the “I Voted” stickers served basically the same purpose. Because at the end of the day, all this paper tear off provided (for those that received it) was proof that I filled out a ballot and fed it into a machine. There was absolutely no assurance provided that my vote was properly recorded by the machine.
And, in a gripe that is unique to Upper Providence, I am confused as to why the Oaks polling place was moved all the way across town, on the other side of Route 29, to the Township Building, instead of finding a suitable location right within Oaks. I understand that the former hosts of Election Day have taken their marbles and gone home in a fit of pique, and I understand the necessity of finding a new polling location. I also understand a perfectly suitable site at the Expo Center was procured, because I helped to procure it. It was County Voter Services that nixed that location for some inexplicable reason. While the Township Building sufficed in this off year election, I cannot imagine what it will be like when voter turnout is high and everyone has to make a left on Black Rock Road to get back home.
Look, this was a sleepy little off-year primary election. Turnout will never be lower. I am at a loss to understand why, given the huge vote swings in tiny Hatboro, that the County has been reluctant to use these great paper ballots to make sure that the will of the people was accurately captured by the machines.
Imagine if this was the Presidential election. Do you think ANYONE is going to have faith in whatever election results get posted next year if we don’t go through this exercise now?
And let’s talk about the reporting that this new system spits out. The County used to post precinct by precinct results on election night via an interactive map, and later via a published results book. While this information may be data overload for the average voter, it’s very valuable information for candidates, committees, and analysts.
The reports that the new system produces aren’t at all instinctual; they are hard to use and it takes an awful long time to get any results. And once the results are finally posted, let’s just say they are not exactly user friendly.
On top of all that, we have this new development: More Than The Curve is reporting that a full list of write-in votes is not going to be possible:
We have been looking forward to publishing a complete list of write-in votes from the primary election. We learned yesterday that that won’t be possible.
Below is the text of an email we received from Montgomery County:
I was just told in the elevator this morning that Voter Services can’t run a report listing all write-ins cast in the election as they have in past years.
With the old machines, voters had to use a keypad to type in their write-in votes and those were recorded on the machine cartridges that were read into a database. Voter Services just had to run a report and put iton (sic) an Excel spreadsheet.
The write-ins are now handwritten. At tabulation, they only record write-ins if there are enough to meet a threshold (I’m pretty sure it’s at least 10, but I need to confirm that) and they don’t record what they consider disqualifying votes at all, i.e. votes for fictional characters such as Gritty or Mickey Mouse.
To compile a list like they had in the past, someone would have to go through all 100,000 ballots and manually record them to the list.
If the write-ins are spread across 100,000 ballots, exactly how do they tabulate which ones are real and which are goofy, along with keeping track of which ones met a threshold, without creating a master list of all write-in in votes?
Who gets to decide which ones are goofy and not include them? Seems like it would be easier and more efficient to tabulate all of them for a full record. What happens when there is a more obscure satirical vote? Who figures out if its a real person or not?
Let’s set aside the debate on whether or not Gritty might be the best man (?) for the job; he may very well be.
This seems like an awfully subjective process, to prone to the whims of government appointees. This seems an awful lot like determining voter intent.
For a County Wide RE-COUNT
It should be noted that County Commissioner Candidate Fred Conner has called for a re-canvass of the vote. I’m not sure what a re-canvass is as opposed to a re-count, but I’m sure the choice of words was intentional.
And while I applaud Conner’s stance, and agree with most of what he writes here, I’m curious as to where the Montgomery County Republican Committee is on this issue. Their silence on this is troubling.
Last night, Conner posted Voter Services’ response on his Facebook page. Short version: So sue us.
As a veteran of numerous blow offs from Voter Services, if I were Fred Conner, and if I were serious about getting the vote right and not just performing in kabuki theater, I’d call their bluff and hire a lawyer. As was detailed previously on this blog, Montgomery County Voter Services is not always the best arbiter of telling a complaining constituent what’s legal and what’s not.
And it should be a full re-count. Not a “re-canvass,” whatever that is. Not in selected municipalities. A County wide re-count can put to rest fears that such “programming glitches” didn’t happen elsewhere.
Wasn’t that the whole point of switching to a system with a paper back up? So that we can instill confidence that our votes were properly counted?
Because let’s face it: in our extremely polarized politics, about 50% of voters are going to be very, very upset when their candidate loses in 2020. They are going to point to the unresolved glitches in this election, they are going to look at the reasons for implementing this system, they are going to be suspicious about the accuracy of the results, and they are going to demand accountability.
And it’s going to be unpleasant. Very unpleasant.
This was a sleepy little primary with the lowest possible turnout. Spend the money now to make sure its right. Ask Governor Wolf for funding, since it was his mandate that pushed for the machines. Don’t wait until the Presidential.
And let’s keep it clean.