Election 2017

How Philly is dealing with Election Day voting machine problems

There are 70 technicians working to fix any issues with voter machines today.

Philly polling place: Pennsylvania Widows Home, 1401. E. Susquehanna Ave. in Fishtown.

Philly polling place: Pennsylvania Widows Home, 1401. E. Susquehanna Ave. in Fishtown.

Shannon Wink / Billy Penn

You don’t need to look far on social media this morning to see reports of voting machines breaking down in Philadelphia.

We’ve heard of voting machine issues in Fishtown, Mt. Airy and Graduate Hospital. But despite the reports, the long lines and the Donald Trump-led speculation over election fraud, Republican City Commissioner Al Schmidt’s office says Philadelphia’s 14-year-old voting machines for the most part are holding up to the early demand.

“It hasn’t been anything out of the ordinary,” said Schmidt. “It’s been a handful. If there were an issue like something extraordinary we would know it right out of the gate.”

Philadelphia has about 4,000 voting machines in use on Election Days. They were tested in advance and delivered to polling locations the last few days. If they break down on their big day, a team of 70 technicians — about a dozen more than usual — will be ready to fix the problems. Schmidt said the technicians are spread throughout the city, making it easy for them to accommodate requests in Philadelphia’s 66 wards.

He said technicians will first try to restart the machine. Sometimes that works, and the problem can be fixed in seconds. If the issue cannot be determined quickly, the machine will be swapped out with a backup.    

For those who have been closely following the election, any talk of voting machine failure could raise some eyebrows. Trump, of course, has said the only way he’d lose Pennsylvania is if the election is rigged. And the cyber security firm Carbon Black rated Pennsylvania as the No. 1 place most vulnerable for a hack. In reality, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania likely have little to fear regarding a cyber attack. The machines are too old. They’re not connected to the internet and run on systems like Windows XP.

“The issues aren’t votes aren’t being recorded or votes are being lost or anything like that,” Schmidt said. “That doesn’t and cannot occur. We just want to make sure every polling place has it up and operational to keep the lines moving.”    

But the age of Philadelphia’s and Pennsylvania’s machines does matter somewhat. Most voting machines don’t produce a backup paper copy, as is typical throughout the rest of the country. And 14-year-old machines are 14-year-old machines. Last year, City Council declined to approve the $22 million purchase of new voting machines even though it was part of the city budget.  

“Any technology, I don’t care what it is, has to be replaced at some point,” Schmidt said. “It’s something that inevitably will have to occur but they’ve been reliable on the whole.”

Schmidt said voting machine issues here generally have to do with hardware. One frequent cause is repeated write-in votes. He said sometimes the mechanism that allows people to write in votes can disrupt the machine.   

But so far today the number of machines breaking down has not been substantial.       

“If you compare presidential to presidential,” Schmidt said, “we’re actually experiencing fewer problems relative to recent presidential elections.”

Want some more? Explore other Election 2017 stories.

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Al Schmidt