Monday, February 26, 2018

Bidding for Ballots

A desire to update equipment purchased in 1996 and to address potential security and vote integrity concerns are two factors that motivated Montgomery County officials to announce that they will be issuing an RFP in March of this year for the purpose of replacing and upgrading the equipment used to record and tabulate votes. There are 425 polling places across the County, utilizing approximately 1150 voting machines each election (ten polling places are located within Lower Providence). Polling places have 2-3 machines apiece.

Toward that end, County commissioners Val Arkoosh and Ken Lawrence [both serve on the Board of Elections, Lawrence as its chairman] hosted an open house on Saturday, February 24, 2018 at Montgomery County Community College to give the public an opportunity to view the vendors and products vying for the chance to provide the latest technology, test them out and to provide feedback about those products and potential selection criteria.

Ideally, the new equipment could be in place as early as the November 2018 election cycle, but a Voter Services employee told me today that it was far more likely that it would be available for use by voters for the first time in 2019, given the need to train a large number of poll workers and communicate all the changes in the process to the voters who will use it.

The crowd consisted primarily of elected committeepeople and poll workers, and a smattering of the general public. Two categories of change were shown:

1)  New way to check in -- touch screen and potentially less need to have check-in clerks at the table inside the poll; and  

2) Different approaches to casting a ballot.

First, the check-in process is now all electronic regardless of selected vendor, but seems to be less of a process, mostly verifying the voter and signing, which people do now.

As for the 11 potential vendors providing demos and marketing materials, the exhibitors present on Saturday included: 
  • Clear Ballot of Boston, MA
  • Election Systems and Software of Omaha, NE (ESS is the only vendor currently certified by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)
  • Dominion Voting of Denver, CO (acquired the former Sequoia Voting System, who manufactured the equipment the County uses now)
  • Unisyn Voting Solutions of Vista, CA
  • Tenex Software Solutions of Tampa, FL

The other vendors are currently in the process of getting certified by the Commonwealth.

In the public comment/Q&A segment of the open house, a
number of speakers voiced what they hoped to see in the selected product and what they were concerned about. Jenifer Maslow, a Democrat and an inspector for more than 20 years at the LP polling place in district 1-2 (which votes at Arrowhead School) was primarily focused on the security of whatever system is chosen.

Maslow, who is also involved with the group Citizens for Better Elections, leaned toward vendor Clear Ballot, arguably the least-technological option, consisting of voters hand-marking a paper ballot by filling in circles for their preferred options, and that paper ballot then being fed into a machine for recording and tabulation.  She said she preferred Clear Ballot because she felt that “anything can be hacked, we don’t really know who owns these companies or who designs the software” and, with regard to Clear Ballot’s paper ballot, that “it’s not a foreign concept, this is how SATs are done” so it should be acceptable. “A voter would know their vote is as they intended", she said.

Maslow also noted that many times one of the machines in a poll breaks down and then creates a backlog of voters. In the more manual system, a voter would still be able to vote. She would also like to see a system that can ‘last for a long time’, since ‘we [the taxpayers] are not only voting on them but paying for them”.

Republican committeewoman Brenda Hackett, whose polling place is located within the Shannondell retirement community, offered her perspective – and arrived at the same preference as her Democrat counterpart.  “We have unique issues here at Shannondell with so many people unable to learn new things and some afraid of computers.  I think a fully touch screen system would keep voters away or create very long lines.  This problem will dissipate in the future as people unfamiliar with computers will have passed on.  However, there may be some people who never have to deal with computers…and introducing a touch screen system will be unfamiliar to many of them”.

Hackett continued, “I had a good feeling about the security and accuracy of the machine where a voter marks a piece of paper or where they vote on the touch screen and a piece of blank paper that they insert is returned to them filled in with their vote.  They then feed it in to the machine. So, I guess the one I like best is Clear Ballot.  When you are verified by the clerk, you are given a ballot which you write on in a private setting and then insert it into the machine.  It is in the control of the voter, and it gives the paper backup, and most people would easily learn how to do it."

And "I did not like the system that produces the paper ballot behind a window that they can't touch.  It may be hard to read. Since the issue with our machines is that there is no paper trail… [and since part of the new state requirements are that there must be a paper trail that can be reconciled/audited]… I liked the concept of a voter handling the paper themselves."  
From MY own perspective, I certainly agree with their comments, but I also liked that vendor Dominion re-uses a lot of the technology the County has already paid for in their Sequoia systems – which the County says they believe are reliable and safe - so they may have an edge in that their product can potentially been integrated more easily, quickly and for less money. In this system, voters are issued a card at check-in which is then loaded and activated with their voter information (party, district and relevant voting options) and then taken by the voter to the voting machine and handed to the machine operator for insertion, voting and recording. The card is then given back, wiped clean and reused.

Arkoosh said that money has been budgeted for this purpose over the past few years, but the County wanted to make sure the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had finalized their voting machine requirements before going out to bid.

If you want to provide general feedback on what features you’d like to see, reach out to the County at and let them know your thoughts. They plan to post pictures and descriptions of the potential replacement machines on their Voter Services website shortly.

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