Pennsylvania’s fall legislative session will address the mystery of funding for new state-mandated voting machines.
At the local level, officials say straight-party voting is a major cause for confusion at the polls and this year’s new challenge will be what to do with over 100,000 paper ballots flooding the election system.
Lycoming County approved over $1 million with ClearBallot, based in Boston, for 180 new voting machines. The initial purchase of just over $1 million includes five years of fees, after which time the county will begin paying $42,000 per year in fees, according to Forest Lehman, director of Voter Services for the county.
The new process requires that each municipality offers a paper and electronic option for voters. The paper ballots, once marked, are scanned into the electronic system.
The state Legislature suffered a tough loss in June when the bi-partisan bill meant to offer $90 million for voting machines made it through the House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
“The ball is in his court,” said state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy. Everett said the veto was a surprise because he, and the other legislators who championed it, didn’t see it as anything more than a “good government bill.”
The straight-party controversy
The bill was met with controversy because, in addition to funding, it eliminated straight-party voting. Pennsylvania is one of just eight states nationwide that offer a straight-party voting process, according to Lehman.
“To implement such a change, particularly as new machines are being used for the first time, could lead to voter confusion and longer lines at the polls,” Wolf wrote in a statement at the time. “These factors may lead to decreased voter participation, which, again, is in conflict with an inclusive approach to our system of elections.”
Ironically, Lehman countered that straight-party voting already is one of the primary causes for voter confusion at the polls.
“I think the governor was wrong,” Lehman said. “I think he’s on the wrong side of history on this one.”
Some type of funding should be approved during the fall session, Everett said, but he added that it’s still unclear how much the state will help counties and where the money will come from.
“We want to help the counties with this mandate that they didn’t ask for,” Everett said.
Wolf proposed a $90 million bond to make up for the funding that would have been supplied in the bill. Everett said he and many other legislators, “on principle,” will fight the bond because he believes Wolf is going outside the legal congressional process for approving funds.
Wolf’s bond, as well as the vetoed bill, offer to cover 60% of the roughly $150 million to cover the 67 state counties. Roughly 50% of the counties, including Lycoming County, already have purchased the new software, and will be eligible for a reimbursement, Everett said.
A massive storage challenge
In addition to funding options, the bill proposed decreasing the percentage of paper ballots required to be printed. Right now, counties are required to print ballots for 110% of registered voters.
This comes out to roughly over 80,000 ballots for a county that brings out an average of 40% of its voters for the General Election, Lehman said.
Before the new system, the county was only responsible for storing 3,000 to 4,000 paper ballots, which would have been collected from absentee voters.
During local election years the ballots must be stored for four months and when federal candidates are on the ballot they must be saved for 22 months, according to Lehman.
The new challenge will be handled by the county’s records office and maintenance department, which will need to find a place at the Lysoc View Complex on County Farm Road to store the ballots, Lehman said.