(Screenshot via YouTube)
Philadelphia is poised to make a major, multimillion dollar decision that will impact each and every Philadelphian for years to come: Those giant, push-button electronic voting machines that we’ve used for decades are headed for the voting machine graveyard.
But what will replace them?
Because voting systems with a paper ballot are more reliable, eliminate the threat of cyberattacks and ensure meaningful post-election audits, the Pennsylvania Department of State informed counties in April of 2018 that they must replace their paperless electronic voting machines with new systems that are certified by both the federal and state governments.
These new voting systems are to be purchased by the close of 2019. Philadelphia has earmarked about $22 million toward the purchase of new voting machines, and the state is offering additional funding.
According to leading national experts, the most secure and reliable way to record votes is to let voters mark a paper ballot by hand, with a pen, so there’s no technology between the voter and the ballot, and then put it in a ballot box that includes a scanner. For voters who have difficulty hand-marking a ballot, there must be one ballot-marking device in each polling place. That’s typically a touchscreen computer with assistive input devices, plus a printer. Several of the available systems have these qualifying features and more are being certified.
But other systems are being certified, too. Some require all voters to use touchscreen ballot-marking devices instead of a pen — these systems put more technology between the voter and their vote and are more vulnerable to power outages and technical problems. They also lead to longer lines and costs significantly more both in initial purchase and in maintenance, storage and moving expense.
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There are signs that the selection process won’t be as public and transparent as it should be. While it is up to City Council to approve the purchasing decision, it will likely listen to the recommendations of the City Commissioners. With barely three days notice, the city commissioners announced two public comment sessions: one on Thursday, Jan. 10, at 6 p.m. and the other on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 9:30 a.m., both at 520 N. Columbus Blvd., 6th floor.
The commissioners certainly have years of expertise in running elections in Philadelphia, but the voters of Philadelphia have years of experience in participating in them. It should not be just the commissioners and the city’s Office of Innovation & Technology determining which voting system the city should purchase.
As a city that celebrates its diversity and inclusiveness, Philadelphia should be a leader in inclusiveness and accessibility with voting, empowering informed voters to participate effectively in our democracy.
The city commissioners, committee people and concerned citizens alike should work together to develop an educated decision process that includes public hearings with sufficient advance notice and off-line promotion, public demonstrations of the various systems, and feedback from the voters who will soon be using them.
The city commissioners and Philadelphia City Council must prioritize the public interest to protect citizens’ trust in the election process. As citizens, we have a role to play not only on election day but in calling on our elected officials today — both in the city commissioners office and in City Council — and asking them to be transparent about this critically important decision.
Voting issues in our city have national implications when it comes to Pennsylvania’s representation in the U.S. House and Senate. As a city, we must prioritize public input. It’s time for better elections in Philadelphia, starting with better machines.-30-
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