Officials in 18 Pennsylvania counties “reported accepting gifts, meals or trips from firms competing to sell or lease new voting machines ahead of the 2020 elections,” The Associated Press reported in a story that was published in Saturday’s LNP. The list of gifts was compiled by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who noted that while accepting gifts under a certain threshold is legal, “anyone who took them, period, could be swayed by the perks.” He added: Public officials shouldn’t “accept this nonsense.” No Lancaster County government offices were on the list provided by the auditor general.
First off, we applaud our Lancaster County officials for not being flagged for any of this — as DePasquale puts it — “nonsense.”
Let’s back up for a moment here: Pennsylvania needs to make its elections more secure. The 2020 presidential election is about 20 months away, and the clock is ticking. About four in five Pennsylvania voters use older machines that lack an auditable paper trail, the AP has reported. The Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security recently called for “enhanced security of voter rolls and better contingency planning for cyberattacks and other technological challenges,” according to the AP. Furthermore, federal authorities say Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states, including Pennsylvania, during the 2016 election.
“The lack of a paper trail prevents Pennsylvania’s counties from having the usual means for detecting any hacking or error, then recovering from such an event,” the commission stated in its report. “In the event of a suspected attack, without a paper record, counties would be unable to verify that voting records on machines were accurate.” (We note here that Lancaster County’s voting machines do produce a verifiable paper trail, but are about 13 years old.)
So it is clear that many Pennsylvania counties urgently need new voting machines. The statewide cost is estimated to be at least $125 million, with the overall funding picture — including help from federal and state coffers — still uncertain. Each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties makes its own decision on what company to contract with for the purchase or lease of new machines. That leads to competition for contracts.
And it leads to “nonsense.”
The auditor general’s survey covered the past five years, the AP reported, adding that “DePasquale said most of the gift and travel recipients were county elections officials, and a few were county commissioners.”
And what were those gifts?
Some examples from the report:
— expense-paid travel to Las Vegas;
— tickets to a wine festival and a distillery tour;
— dinners at high-end restaurants;
— open bar service at a conference for elections officials;
— and tickets to an amusement park.
To be clear, not all gifts are the same, and some are more alarming than others. A box of doughnuts is not a trip to Las Vegas.
But even if certain gifts are technically legal, DePasquale sees a problem with them, and we do, too. He said in his news release that he was prompted to review this issue because of the need for transparency and keeping things “aboveboard.”
“It doesn’t matter if the gifts were large or small — my problem is the fact that anyone accepted them, period,” DePasquale stated. “As Pennsylvania counties chose new voting equipment, I want them to make decisions based on the best interests of voters — and no other factors. ... County officials who are making decisions about spending taxpayer dollars should not accept anything of value from the companies that are asking for their business.”
That’s well-stated. This is a crucial issue, given how closely it ties to the success and security of future elections. We cannot afford another potential stigma attached to our voting processes.
Might there be any legitimate reason for accepting gifts? “Election officials sometimes have contacts with vendors for reasons that are not related to selling them equipment, such as helping to test or evaluate new products,” the AP reported, citing an interview with Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
That seems like weak reasoning to us.
Hill added, “The bottom line is, we’re being as diligent as possible in a high pressure situation to get something in place that is going to work well for the voters, that is going to be easy for the officials to administer, and is going to guarantee the safety and accuracy of casting a ballot.”
We understand and sympathize with the timetable and financial pressures facing county officials. But that’s no excuse for accepting gifts and opening the door to even the perception of impropriety.
Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed a gift ban on employees of his administration. But those rules obviously do not apply to county-level officials. DePasquale said he would like to see Pennsylvania strengthen its laws for the accepting and reporting of such gifts. And he wants to see disclosure laws updated to bring them in line with what is required of lobbyists. That makes good sense.
Whether it’s free food, liquor or trips to Las Vegas, the optics of county officials accepting gifts from those seeking contracts are awful. And when those companies are looking to provide voting machines, the optics are even worse.
“It’s about preserving the integrity of their role in the democratic process,” DePasquale said.
We agree. And we hope this “nonsense” ends. It has no place in 2019. And we’re glad Lancaster County stayed out of DePasquale’s doghouse.