Credit: Dan Levy/Billy Penn

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Updated 2:42 p.m.

Along with higher-than-usual turnout when it comes to midterm elections, Philly voters ran into a bunch of malfunctioning polling machines on Election Day this year.

At least 18 Philadelphia precincts had reported broken machines by 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 6, per the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition. That’s out of 1,692 total voting divisions in the county. It’s unclear at this point what caused the issues, or how many have so far been fixed.

City Commissioner Al Schmidt told Billy Penn on Tuesday afternoon that the number of broken machines is mostly consistent with elections in recent years.

“It’s sort of the typical types of reports that we hear, especially when turnout is heavy,” Schmidt said. “There’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the number of voting machine issues we’ve seen.”

In accordance with typical Election Day prep, officials dispatched 60 technicians throughout the city — each with their own vehicle — to repair broken machines as issues arise. If they can’t fix them, they brought extra machines on hand to immediately replace them.

So far, Schmidt said the staff has replaced a total of 10 machines.

Meanwhile, seven polling stations failed to open on time — another number that’s consistent with recent years. This morning, Schmidt said at least one polling place volunteer fell on her way to open up shop, causing a delay.

In other cases, public building employees showed up late, and the elections staff had to literally break into the buildings.

“Afterwards, we go into the Court of Common Pleas and apologize for it,” Schmidt said. “We have yet to be held in contempt for it.”

Social media = more reports

In all, Schmidt has had a hectic day responding to reports of broken machines. It’s been particularly exhausting, he said, because folks have called in problems that they’ve seen on social media, rather than problems they’ve encountered firsthand.

As of 2 p.m., Schmidt said he was still getting calls about a broken machine in the Sixth Ward, which he said had been fixed at 7:10 a.m. — but has been shared on social media at least 85 times since then.

“It’s all well-intentioned, but it’s frequently counter-productive,” Schmidt said.

Still, Schmidt encouraged voters to continue to report any issues they encounter. The Election Protection Coalition is taking calls to its hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE.

Blame old machines?

Philadelphia has about 4,000 voting machines total — and the city has been using those same ones since 2002.

The 16-year-old machines have been known to malfunction in the past, despite being tested in advance and delivered to polling locations about a week before Election Day.

“There’s always the possibility that when the Election Board starts up a polling place, that there could be an issue,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt told Billy Penn in 2016 that voting machine issues generally have to do with their 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.

In 2015, City Council declined to approve the $22 million purchase of new voting machines even though it was part of the city budget. Council President Darrell Clarke argued at the time that the machines “clearly [did] not need to be replaced.”

“Any technology, I don’t care what it is, has to be replaced at some point,” Schmidt said in 2016. “It’s something that inevitably will have to occur but they’ve been reliable on the whole.”

Problems all over

Philly residents posted on social media about issues at polling places all over the city.

Problems were reported in neighborhoods like Fishtown, Francisville, South Philadelphia and Center City.
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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...