A tablet showing the ExpressPoll logo and reading "City of Philadelphia 2023 Municipal Election."
The ExpressPoll electronic pollbook tablet by ES&S, customized for Philadelphia. (Phila.gov)

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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

If you cast your vote in person for Philly’s primary, you’ll notice something different.

Election workers are for the first time ever using electronic poll books to check in voters, and verify they’re in the right polling place.

The brand new system does come with the risk of some hiccups. 

Past issues with software led to a couple of false starts; the Office of City Commissioners have twice put off Philadelphia’s adoption of e-poll books. This Tuesday, some poll workers are concerned about a shortage of electrical outlets to keep devices powered.

But the commissioners say they’ve thoroughly tested the new system and made sure polling places can accommodate it. And the positives are significant:

Tablet computers give the election workers instant access to each voter’s information and help them make sure people with mail ballots don’t double-vote. The new system should speed up both in-person voting and vote-counting, according to the commissioners.

And they’ve been used in other places for years, Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio noted.

“This technology, while it’s new to Philadelphia, is not new. People use this technology all around the country,” Custodio said. “Philadelphia is getting with the times.”

A faster, smarter system

Having voters sign in with their fingertips on electronic tablets provides several advantages over signing with pens in paper books, according to the commissioners and Philly poll workers.

The “best part” is that workers with tablets can quickly search the voter database to make sure people are at the right place and voting in the correct division, said Larry West, a judge of elections — aka the supervising poll worker for his location — in Mount Airy. 

“Every year there are people who come to my polling place, they’re at the wrong place, and I have to take out my phone or my tablet and try to find their polling place,” West told Billy Penn. “It’s all in the system this time.”

In that case, the ExpressVote app on the check-in tablets will quickly provide the exact location of the person’s correct polling location. 

The software tells workers if they need to check the ID of a first-time voter. It lets them compare new signatures to old ones to verify voters’ identities. 

It also flags people who have already voted by mail. If a person wants to surrender a mail ballot and cast an in-person provisional vote, the tablet provides instructions.

Once a voter checks in, a printer prints a slip of paper with their voting division and party affiliation. In the voting booth, the person inserts the slip into a voting machine and the corresponding ballot appears on the touch-screen.

When election officials subsequently check their final batches of mail ballots to make sure those people didn’t vote in person, searching the lists generated by the ExpressVote system will be much quicker than looking through paper records, Deputy Commissioner Custodio said.

“Reconciliation may take a couple of hours as opposed to a couple of days,” he said. That should speed up the reporting of final election results.

The third time’s the charm?

The commissioners wanted to use e-poll books back in 2019, but the software they were testing had communication problems with the ExpressVote printers Philadelphia uses, so they held off. 

They switched to ExpressVote voter check-in software to align the two systems, but ahead of last November’s City Council special elections, it was freezing up and couldn’t be updated in time, Custodio confirmed.

Ovet the past five months, elections officials put the updated software through “rigorous testing,” he said. “It is ready for prime time.”

Poll workers note that the new system is more dependent on electricity than the old paper system.

“Where I station my division there is one plug with two outlets in it, but there are five other divisions in that room,” said Marjorie Bolton, a judge of elections in Mount Airy. Her division votes in a rec center gym. “Everyone needs a plug, because they plug up their machines. Will it be enough? I hope so.”

Polling places also have “network in a box” routers to provide Wifi connections and let the tablets update one another as voters sign in. The routers get power by plugging into the voting machines, which in turn plug into the wall.

Extra cords, plus backup batteries

Staffers in the commissioners’ office have spent months making sure the rec centers, church halls, school buildings and other spaces that are serving as voting locations have adequate facilities, per Custodio.

“Our polling place unit has been out surveying our polling places and has moved certain rooms around and made sure that our polling places have the necessary electrical outlets. We are also providing power strips with longer cords,” he said.

Judge of elections West said he might nonetheless bring a power strip with him in case he finds himself with more cords than outlets. 

“Before it was just the voting machine. Now it’s the voting machine, the printer that’s attached to the electronic poll book, and then the electronic poll book itself. It’s a lot,” West observed. 

Even if there aren’t enough plugs for every device, voting should still be able to proceed, Custodio said. 

The tablets, routers, and voting machines all have batteries. As a precaution during this first-time use of e-poll books, the commissioners also printed out paper poll books as an emergency fallback. 

If the printers aren’t plugged in, voters can insert blank slips into the voting machines and then select their “ballot style” — that is, their division and party — on the screen, Custodio said.

A rocky technological road

The move to electronic poll books is the latest step in the long evolution of the city’s voting technology.

Judge of elections Bolton recalls overseeing the “big green machines” with levers that were used through much of the 20th century. In the 1990s, the city switched to direct-recording electronic machines, or DREs, which had buttons and stored votes on removable memory cartridges.

The DREs didn’t create paper records, however, and state and local officials wanted to upgrade following the Russian meddling that occurred during the 2016 presidential election.

It was a rough transition. The new machines, ExpressVote XLs, had problems at many Philadelphia polling locations, such as hypersensitive touchscreens, paper jams, and panels opening to expose electronic controls. Officials said the problems were addressed.

The Green Party’s Jill Stein and other groups critical of the new machines or the procurement process sued to have them decertified, but the suits stalled or failed. 

In October 2020 someone broke into the City Commissioners’ warehouse in East Falls where the machines are stored and took thumb drives used to program them, along with a laptop belonging to an employee of ES&S, the machine manufacturer. The company and the commissioners said the stolen materials would not compromise the upcoming election.

At this point, Bolton and West said they’re very familiar with ExpressVote XLs, and poll workers have gotten special additional training on the new e-poll books. Now residents just have to get used to them. 

“The bigger aspect is going to be how the voters are going to feel, because I don’t think most voters are aware of this. It’s going to be a shock,” West said. “Once that initial shock is done and once everyone’s used to the system, it’s going to be so much faster for everyone.”

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Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...