Inside the Controversy Over Philly’s Effort to Get New Voting Machines

The city’s high-stakes voting machine procurement process has come under fire from two powerful watchdog officials. Here’s what they're saying — and how Philly is responding.

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Philly’s current voting machines. | Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Roughly a year ago, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration ordered all Pennsylvania counties to replace electronic voting systems with machines that leave a paper trail, in a move officials believed would allow for more accuracy and protect the state from hacking.

The Pennsylvania Department of State asked that each county select its new paper record voting system by the end of 2019 so the equipment would in place for the 2020 primary election — and preferably for the November 2019 general election. (That way counties wouldn’t be testing out the new machines during such a high-stakes presidential primary.) That timeline sounds easy, right?

Of course not.

Here in Philly, officials with the City Commissioner’s Office have come under fire from state and city watchdogs — namely Pennsylvania auditor general Eugene DePasquale and city controller Rebecca Rhynhart — regarding the city’s voting machine procurement process. DePasquale and Rhynhart both say the city is rushing to choose a voting machine vendor, and DePasquale has aired concerns regarding the transparency of the selection process.

Philly’s three city commissioners were scheduled to vote on a new voting machine system on Wednesday. But on Tuesday night, they postponed that action, as Rhynhart and DePasquale had suggested.

For the most part, the City Commissioner’s Office says it’s just doing what it needs to do to meet the state deadlines. Here’s how the office has handled the voting machine procurement process so far, as well as an explanation of watchdog concerns and the city’s responses.

The Procurement Process So Far

In November, the Office of Innovation and Technology and the City Commissioner’s Office issued a request for proposals for a new voting machine contract. Prior to its issuance, “staff spent several months conducting research in preparation,” said Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office.

“This research involved, but was not limited to, a review of federal and state documentation, a survey of requirements from other locales, a state/federal sponsored security symposium attended by both City Commissioners and OIT staff, observation of elections in other municipalities, and the issuance of a request for information (RFI) in June,” Dunn said via email.

The city received several bids in response to its RFP. A selection committee — which, according to the Inquirer, is made up of representatives from City Council, the Mayor’s Office, OIT and the Office of the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer — considered those proposals and on Tuesday evening made recommendations to the city commissioners, who were then supposed to conduct the now-delayed vote.

Now we’re caught up to speed in terms of the process itself. Let’s get into issues along the way.

Watchdog Concerns and the City’s Response

In December, DePasquale announced that he would conduct a statewide review of Pennsylvania’s new voting machine procurement process after it was reported that the director of the Luzerne County Elections Bureau accepted trips from a vendor that supplied the county’s electronic voting equipment and poll books.

“Having any vendor pay for a junket is unacceptable,” DePasquale said at the time. “As far as I know, no laws have been broken. But I want to know what’s going on in the rest of our counties.”

On Monday, DePasquale held a press conference calling attention to Philadelphia and eight other counties that missed a February 8th deadline to provide his office with information about how they are selecting new voting machine equipment. Each county had been asked to answer six questions that largely sought to determine if elections officials had accepted trips or gifts from voting equipment vendors.

On Monday morning, the City Commissioner’s Office turned in its answers. In its reply, the office said it had nothing to report in regard to any potential trips paid for by potential voting machine vendors. The office detailed a few trips taken by commissioners, including to machine demos hosted by the Department of State and a 2013 occasion when Commissioner Al Schmidt traveled to Election Systems & Software’s headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, which the office said Schmidt personally paid for. The response also detailed a few trips to observe other counties’ primary elections, which were “either reimbursed by the city or paid out of pocket.”

The office said it included this information “in an effort for full transparency.”

On Tuesday, DePasquale said his office was reviewing the city commissioners’ responses. He also welcomed the postponement of the scheduled vote on purchasing new voting machines, calling the delay “a major victory for those of us who want to ensure Philadelphia does the right thing.”

Rhynhart too commended the city commissioners’ choice to postpone the vote. Both she and DePasquale had expressed concerns that the city’s RFP was written to favor one vendor. In response, the City Commissioner’s Office said the RFP was written and released at a time when only one system had been certified by both federal and state governments, as required. (More systems have been certified since.) The office also said they wrote the RFP with several considerations in mind, including the city’s large candidate pool, which encouraged commissioners to prefer a machine with “the ability to display all candidates on a screen and the whole ballot on the fewest number of screens as possible.”

Whatever the office’s choice, Philly’s voting machine vendor contract will likely be one of the biggest in the U.S., DePasquale said, with a cost that he estimates could reach $60 million over time.

For that reason, Rhynhart has called on the City Commissioner’s Office to make the reasoning behind their impending selection public, as well as to consult with a ballot-security expert and conduct public demonstrations of potential voting machines, according to the Inquirer.

For now, City Commissioners and the OIT will continue to consider the vendor proposals. Deputy commissioner Nick Custodio said the commissioners are working to select “the best system for the voters of Philadelphia” and that the office expects to exceed Wolf’s deadline and meet his preferred election implementation this fall.

Dunn said the Mayor’s Office is hopeful that the choice will “result in new voting technology that meets Philadelphia’s electoral needs for years to come.”