CCP's new mascot, Roary the Lion, learns how to use Philly's new touchscreen voting machines

Updated Oct. 31, 11 a.m.

Philadelphia’s journey to new voting machines has not gone smoothly.

You may have caught the occasional headline, but it’s been easy to lose the thread on this year-long saga packed with backlash over sketchy contracts, undisclosed lobbyists and potential security risks.

The debate affects more than just local politics. With the city’s outsize role in determining Pennsylvania’s electoral tally, how Philly’s voting technology works — and whether the public has confidence in it — could have big implications for 2020 and beyond.

Here’s a quick overview of the insanely complicated election drama that’s unfolded over the last year.

Why do we need new voting machines in the first place?

The new machines are part of a statewide upgrade ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf last year. Most devices across the commonwealth are decades old — with Philadelphia’s dating back to the 1990s.

It’s not just the age of the equipment that sparked the change. Both county and state officials felt an upgrade was in dire need following the Russian meddling that occurred in the 2016 presidential election, which inflamed anxieties around voting security nationwide.

We have new voting machines now, yes?

Yes. Philadelphia currently has 3,700 machines that will replace the city’s antiquated stock in polling stations next month. The new model is the ExpressVote XL from Election Systems and Software (ES&S). They’ll debut around the city for the Nov. 5, 2019 general election.

So we needed more modern voting machines — and now we’re getting them. Why should I be concerned?

Concerns persist around two things. For one, whether the new digital touchscreen technology will actually make votes more secure.

Second is the way in which ES&S, the machine manufacturer, was selected. Two city commissioners, Philly’s independently elected election watchdogs, have acknowledged the lack of transparency in the process. Election-security advocates continue to raise alarm about the contract.

What was controversial about the selection process?

Suspicions began swirling early about the selection process in January.

City commissioners first put out a request for a machine in November 2018 — and received six bids from qualified manufacturers. Advocates said there was not enough transparency in the selection process before a decision was made.

Other municipalities allowed voters to test out several models before naming the winning bidder. Allegheny County even published a detailed document outlining the various proposed voting systems.  A city spokesperson told Billy Penn public testing of the machines would have violated the city’s procurement rules by revealing who was bidding on the contract.

Questions surfaced about the cost of the touchscreen devices, the reliability of the technology, and whether or not the contract had been designed to favor a certain vendor’s bid. Advocates and local and state officials waved red flags, but the vote went forward anyway. The city commissioners awarded ES&S the $29 million contract in February.

What was the justification for rushing the process without public input?

Philadelphia elections officials have maintained from day one that it was all a matter of funding and deadlines.

In order to replace the machines in time for the 2020 election — as stipulated in Gov. Wolf’s machine replacement directive — they would need to select a vendor quickly to test and troubleshoot the new machines before the big day, commissioners said.

That meant, ideally, using the machines for the 2019 general election. Officials acknowledged that public input suffered as a result of that crunch, but still stood by their decision. Commissioners maintain they followed the city’s procurement policy for “best value” purchases. In May, Mayor Jim Kenney stood by the selection, too.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, the city’s fiscal watchdog and one of the earliest critics of the process, vowed to a full investigation of the selection process.

Couldn’t they have cancelled the bid and started over?

Yes. Over the summer, the 6-month-old contract came under fire again. Rhynhart informed city attorneys that ES&S had failed to disclose it hired lobbyists, which is required for city vendors. Also a bad look: the firm failed to divulge it had donated to local political campaigns — including the two commissioners, Republican Al Schmidt and Democrat Lisa Deeley, who awarded the bid.

Calls to void the contract grew more pitched. But Philly’s Board of Elections, chaired by Judge Giovanni Campbell, ruled to move forward anyway. The board said restarting the process would jeopardize the city’s ability to have the machines up and running by 2020 as planned.

Critics contested that claim, too — to no avail. ES&S has agreed to pay the city a nearly $3 million penalty for its disclosure errors, the Inquirer reported.

Did the controller’s investigation find anything?

Last week, Rhynhart released the results of a months-long investigation. Her watchdog office found a heavy amount of undisclosed backdoor lobbying that went into the machine selection process — even more than had been previously reported.

ES&S has spent more than $428,000 lobbying in the city since 2014, the report said. Further, Rhynhart said the contract had indeed been biased and predisposed toward ES&S.

How much do these machines cost anyway?

Early estimates indicate it’s going to cost $125 to 150 million statewide to replace all the machines. In February, counties across the state clapped back at Wolf for not allocating enough money to cover the expense. Disputes between Wolf and Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg have also tied up some of the funding.

Philadelphia’s $29 million contract makes up a big chunk of the statewide estimate, because the county needs more machines than any other. The math works out to about $7,500-$8,000 per unit.

How do the new machines work?

On the ExpressVoteXL, voters will see a digital ballot on the touchscreen where they cast their votes.

Once you pull the lever, the machine will print out a physical piece of paper. That printout will include both a barcode and a plain text version of your ballot for your review. When finished, the barcode will be scanned and used to officially cast your vote.

The plain text version will be the official receipt for your vote. In the event of a recount, the Pa. Department of State has ordered that the text printout will be used to do the tally, to mitigate concerns about technology being hacked.

How does the method stack up when it comes to vote security?

Chris Wlaschin, vice president of systems security for ES&S, said that the machines have been though “hundreds of thousands of hours of testing,” and that they meet both federal and state certifications.

Back in July, a group of election-security advocates petitioned the Pa. Dept. of State to withdraw its certification of the machines. The petition laid out a number of concerns about the ExpressVoteXL — prominent among them the possibility of hackers being able to alter votes.

In September, the state announced it would not decertify the machines. In a report, officials said they found no evidence to support the advocates’ claims.

Has there been any evidence that the machines are unreliable so far?

The machines have been tested widely around the city over the last eight months. Some elections officials also held a mock election this summer in several polling places. City commissioners told Billy Penn at the time that they had heard no complaints.

It turned out there were some problems during that test election, though not related to the voting machines themselves. Technical difficulties abounded with the city’s new electronic poll books — iPads and software that were meant to replace the sign-in binders at polling stations. The $2.6 million tech now will not be rolled out in next month’s general election.

As an incidental bonus to the machine drama, the Inquirer also reported that the city will now make all of its polling stations ADA-compliant. The ES&S machines are too heavy to lift up stairs, so the city needs to ensure there are ramps in every polling place — likely even the weird ones, like hoagie shops.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...