Pennsylvania will issue a bond to assist counties with the ongoing purchases of new voting systems that include a paper trail, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced July 9. Through the bond, the state will have a fund of $90 million to reimburse counties for 60% of their actual costs in replacing voting machines — fulfilling an unfunded mandate handed down by the Wolf administration in 2018. In June, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners approved a nearly $3 million contract for new voting equipment that will be put into service in November.
This has been a costly and frustrating path to an important outcome.
To be clear, we are glad the governor is providing financial assistance to all counties for the purchase of new and more secure voting machines. Federal agencies warned that Russian hackers targeted Pennsylvania in recent elections. Guaranteeing the security of our elections is of utmost importance to our democracy.
But how we got here is another matter. A frustrating one. And a costlier one than it needed to be for taxpayers.
There is plenty of criticism to spread around.
When Pennsylvania was informed that it (and at least 20 other states) had been targeted by Russia during the 2016 presidential election, “it prompted a wide range of election integrity advocates and computer scientists ... to urge states to switch to machines that produce an auditable paper trail,” LNP reported July 10.
In February 2018, Wolf “ordered counties that plan to replace their electronic voting systems to buy machines that leave a paper trail — a safeguard against hacking,” The Associated Press reported. But Wolf also stressed that counties did not have to discard older equipment.
That was a good commonsense directive.
But then, in April 2018, acting Secretary of State Robert Torres ordered all Pennsylvania counties to have “voter-verifiable paper record voting systems selected no later than December 31, 2019, and preferably in place by the November 2019 general election,” according to a state news release.
While that new mandate came with some confirmed federal assistance, no state funding was yet in place.
It was a bit of a head-scratcher. While voting security is paramount, it’s not clear that every county needed new machines. And, as an unfunded mandate, it put some local officials in a tough spot.
“Almost all of our voters use paper ballots already,” Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons told LNP’s Gillian McGoldrick. “There was no reason for it. We are literally scrapping perfectly good voting equipment, which in Lancaster County, we take pride in being frugal and being careful with resources.”
Parsons said about 94% of Lancaster County voters were already using paper ballots before last month’s approval of a five-year, lease-to-own contract for the VerityVote system from Texas-based Hart InterCivic. (Side note: We were distressed by last weekend’s AP report that Hart InterCivic’s voting system runs on a version of Microsoft Windows that might not receive technical support after Oct. 13, 2020. We hope there is a resolution to this issue that affects neither taxpayers nor election security.)
In the 14 months following Torres’ directive, counties moved forward with the acquisition of new voting machines to meet the state deadline.
Because of how purchases had to be handled — with uncertainty regarding state assistance — Lancaster taxpayers will be stuck with a higher bill. “With interest, the total comes out to $2,976,289, to be paid over five years in installments of $595,258,” LNP’s Carter Walker reported last month.
That’s regrettable. Having state assurances up front could have saved taxpayers money.
“This has been an unnecessary crisis of the Governor’s making,” Parsons tweeted on June 27.
But wait, there’s more.
(This is Pennsylvania, after all.)
Earlier this year, Wolf sought money in the 2019-2020 budget to reimburse counties for a portion of the new voting systems. But the GOP-controlled Legislature resisted until late in budget negotiations, when it passed legislation that provided $90 million for counties — but with a kicker. The legislation also eliminated straight-ticket voting in Pennsylvania.
That was a poison pill, in the governor’s eyes.
“In his veto statement, Wolf said he supported secure elections and making it easier for citizens to vote,” McGoldrick reported. “But, he said, the legislation he vetoed did not ‘strike the right balance to improve access to voters or security.’ ”
We agreed. On July 3, the LNP Editorial Board noted that the GOP legislation “should have been a clean bill. ... Election security isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s a democracy issue. Alas, a provision to eliminate straight-ticket voting was added to the legislation without any substantive discussion. We’re not fans of slapdash legislating.”
And so this circuitous route of inefficient governing led to Wolf ordering the $90 million bond issue last week. That round of borrowing will represent another whammy for taxpayers.
Meanwhile, the AP reported that state Republicans “are researching what sort of legal authority the governor has to order the move.”
There’s one final punch line: In his July 9 announcement, “Wolf included one crucial change ... in his stated intention to decertify voting systems,” the AP reported. “(He said) he would give counties that already use paper-based voting systems the opportunity to request an extension until June 2021 to select a new system.”
Too little, too late, governor.
If only Lancaster County had been given that option a year ago.
Blood donors needed
The American Red Cross has issued an emergency call for blood and platelet donors, LNP’s Heather Stauffer reported Saturday. The Red Cross says it has less than a three-day supply of most blood types. Its goal is a five-day supply.
And the Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health Blood Donor Center is also asking for more donors to help replenish its supply.
This isn’t the usual seasonal call for donations. “Donations traditionally slump as people take summer vacations, but Lancaster General spokeswoman Mary Ann Eckard said its need was accentuated by an increase in trauma cases, which pushed blood use up about 20% in May and June,” Stauffer reported.
To donate, an individual must be at least 16 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds, be in good health (with no recent major surgery), have no history of hepatitis, and not have gotten a tattoo or body piercing within the past 12 months.
If you are able, please donate blood or platelets. And please spread the word to other potential donors.
Specific donation information is available online:
— Lancaster General: bit.ly/LGHdonate
— Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank: 717giveblood.org
— Red Cross: redcross.org/give-blood.html