Lancaster County officials are taking a “cautious” approach to what they believe could be a costly, and perhaps misplaced, directive that they replace their 12-year-old voting system by the end of 2019.
Each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties must implement a new voting system that meets two qualifications, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.
The system must leave a “voter-verifiable paper record,” and it must be among the systems approved by the department in 2018 or later.
Though Lancaster County is among the minority of counties that still have voting machines with paper trails, its system is from 2006.
“We felt like our paper ballot system would qualify but as of right now it does not,” said Commissioner Dennis Stuckey. “What we’ll have to do is press the case and see if we can convince them that we will qualify. So far they’ve told us (our system) will not be certified.”
That could mean a $1.5 million to $2.5 million overhaul, Stuckey said, emphasizing “really uncertain” estimate because they don’t know if some of their current system will be certified or if they will have to replace it entirely, and through a new manufacturer.
Statewide, costs could be anywhere from $75 million to $125 million — far below the $13.5 million in recently approved federal funds for the project.
“There’s a big shortfall in terms of the counties’ expenditures for new voting equipment,” said Stuckey, who serves as president of the County Commissioners Association. “Whether there will be help from the state government to flip this bill, or perhaps more money from the federal government, we’re unsure right now.”
Lancaster’s paper trail
The county transitioned in 2006 from mechanical lever voting machines to the current system, in which voters fill out paper ballots and then feed them into an electronic optical scanning machine that records the votes.
For its 240 precincts, the county has 290 optical scanners, according to the county elections office. It also has 367 machines that record votes electronically, most of which are for voters with disabilities.
“The vast majority of our voters are already voting on paper ballots,” said county chief registrar Randall Wenger.
In the last presidential election, 85 percent of votes cast in the county were from those who filled out a paper ballot.
None of the machines, Wenger said, are connected to each other or to the internet.
“They’re simply standalone boxes,” and poll workers take multiple extensive steps to transfer the votes from them to secure computers, backup flash drives and eventually to online county and state databases, Wenger said.
“There’s no way to remotely access the election equipment that we or any of the Pennsylvania jurisdictions utilize on election day,” he said.
The transition 12 years ago was mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act, which provided about $2.4 million of the $2.8 million it cost the county to buy the new machines, according to LNP archives.
Stuckey said this week the county expected to get another five to 10 years out of the current system.
The commissioners haven’t yet discussed how they’d pay for another switch in 2019. But if the Legislature doesn’t come through with more help, Stuckey said he thinks it could be considered a general fund capital expenditure in the county budget.
“We’re looking at this very cautiously,” he said.