A City Commissioners staffer demonstrates the ExpressVote XL voting machine at Reading Terminal Market in 2019 Credit: Matt Rourke / AP Photo

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The voting machines Philadelphia will use in the 2022 midterm elections were once the center of massive controversy.

Built by a company based in Nebraska, ExpressVote XL machines were first implemented in Philly in November 2019.  When they debuted, some poll workers and voters complained about the system. But the city commissioners stuck by their choice, saying they had worked properly and allowed for an efficient process. That stance continues to this day.

“The ExpressVote XLs have performed well since they were first introduced,” Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio told Billy Penn Wednesday.

It didn’t help that on Election Day three years ago, the only other Pa. jurisdiction using ExpressVote XL had problems. In Northampton County, some votes were not collected properly because of human error in how the machines were configured. Paper ballots — part of the machines’ backup system — allowed for a correct recount.

Throughout the following months, legal challenges to the ExpressVote XL machines continued, creating questions about how they would perform in the 2020 presidential election. Then there was a break-in at the facility that houses the machines, which, simply put, wasn’t a good look.

But November 2020 came and went, and Philadelphia voters made their voices heard. (Many used mail ballots, but that’s a whole different story.)

We’ve now seen several Election Days where machines didn’t pose any major issues in Philly, according to local elections officials. Custodio said the machines have been doing well, but did not respond to Billy Penn’s request for the number of voting-machine-related complaints from the last five elections.

Still, the controversies seem to have simmered down, and the city made clear that it is sticking with its choice.

“We believe that the ExpressVote XL will continue to serve the voters of Philadelphia admirably for years to come,” Custodio said.

How did we get here, and what do other nearby counties use? In advance of the upcoming election — when rumors and accusations about voting integrity are likely to surface — here’s what you need to know to be fully informed.

Bringing paper back

In November 2018, Philadelphia was using paperless voting machines (known in the biz as direct recording electronic, or DRE, systems). An estimated 83% of Pennsylvania voters four years ago used that kind of system to cast their votes.

That was a problem because those machines could be hacked, and without a paper record it would be difficult to verify the true results, said the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security in a 2019 report.

“The lack of voter-marked paper ballots (either by hand or machine) retained for recounts or audits in the majority of Pennsylvania’s voting machines is perhaps most potentially damaging to the legitimacy-and faith therein — of Pennsylvania’s vote,” the commission wrote. “If the records are corrupted, whether intentionally by malicious attack or from benign malfunction, there might be no way to know.”

By the time that commission released its report, the Pa. Department of State had already instructed counties to choose voter-verifiable paper-record voting systems by the end of 2019. It did so in keeping with a late-2018 settlement between the state and a group of plaintiffs led by Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Philadelphia chose the ExpressVote XL.

They work like this: After you enter the voting booth, you insert a paper ballot into the machine (in a primary, a poll worker does this for you so they can select the correct party). Once your ballot is inserted, options appear on screen. You tap your selections, then press print.

The machine then prints your choices onto the paper ballot, which you can view before finalizing. Once you’ve verified it’s accurate, you press a button to accept. The vote is tabulated by the machine digitally, and the paper ballot gets stored for elections officials.

A rocky debut in Pa.

ExpressVote XL machines didn’t get off to the smoothest start in Pennsylvania.

Even before they were used in an election, Philadelphia’s city controller, Rebecca Rhynhart put out a report highlighting issues with the procurement process. The report also suggested the City Commissioners had possible conflicts of interest in choosing these machines.

Northampton County in the Lehigh Valley also deployed these machines, made by Nebraska-based company Election Systems & Software (ES&S), in the November 2019 election.

Philadelphia saw some kind of problem with at least 366 of 3,750 ExpressVote XLs in that election, Reuters reported. More than 40% of Philly polling locations reported issues with the new machines, including hypersensitive touchscreens, paper jams, and panels opening to expose electronic controls, public records showed.

Northampton experienced issues too. As many as 30% of the county’s new machines were configured improperly, ES&S admitted in a December 2019 press conference.

Even after that, local officials expressed confidence in the machines’ ability to properly capture votes in the future.

Meanwhile, in the courts

A group of voters and nonprofit groups sued then-Pa. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar in December 2019, saying she shouldn’t have certified the machines to begin with.

Boockvar tried, unsuccessfully, to get that case dismissed. While a state judge allowed the suit to move forward, the voter coalition who sued hasn’t filed anything new since late last year.

The case appears to have stalled.

In federal court, another attempt to decertify the ExpressVote XL machines, by Stein of the Green Party, was also unsuccessful. Stein alleged the machines weren’t in compliance with the 2018 settlement adding new requirements for Pa. voting machines.

A federal judge in Philadelphia denied Stein’s request to decertify the machines, saying her allegations were “baseless and irrational.”

And … a heist?

In October 2020, as people were wondering whether technical issues would arise with the ExpressVote XL machines again in the closely watched presidential battleground, Philadelphia voting machine security measures came into question.

Somebody broke into the City Commissioners’ warehouse in East Falls that held Philly’s ExpressVote XL machines, taking thumb drives used to program the machines as well as a laptop belonging to an employee of ES&S, the machine manufacturer.

Philadelphia Commissioners and ES&S representatives assured the press that the stolen materials would not compromise the upcoming election, though they didn’t answer specific questions about the USB drives and the machines.

Even after that incident, a Billy Penn reporter who went to the site was able to walk right into the machine storage unit without encountering any staff or security personnel for several minutes. After that, the city promised to put 24/7 security at the facility.

No news is good news?

Since then, there hasn’t been much buzz around the ExpressVote XL, which has been used in Philly in three elections since — the 2021 primary and general, and the 2022 primary.

After the primary in May, ES&S even put out a press release purporting that Philadelphians cast their votes with “extra reassurance” thanks to the machines it has used since November 2019. Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Custodio was quoted in the press release, saying “Voters really love that they can see and verify their paper ballot before it’s cast.”

The release said more than 160k voters moved through polling places in Philadelphia, crediting the machines for a quick process.

“We didn’t hear of any lines out there today,” Custodio said in the release. “Voting with the ExpressVote XL is quick and easy, so voters really didn’t take long in the booth.”

Voter turnout was about 24% in May 2022, with 247k registered voters participating. Over 100k Philadelphians requested mail ballots for that election.

What the Pa. burbs are using

Pennsylvania counties have turned to different methods to collect votes with a paper trail. Not all have ExpressVote XL machines.

Chester County mostly relies on hand-marked paper ballots. But some polling places use devices made by ES&S where voters mark their ballots, which then get scanned in for vote collection.

In Montgomery County, voters fill out their ballots by pen — or by using an ADA-compliant touchscreen ballot-marking device. Then the ballot is scanned by a machine to collect vote tallies.

Delaware County in 2019 chose the Hart Verity 2.3.4 voting system. On this system, voters make selections on a ballot-marking device, print their ballot out, then place it in a scanner that reads the paper ballot and sends it into a secure storage compartment.