Washington County voters are one step closer to having new voting machines that produce a paper trail in advance of next year’s presidential primary.
The three-member Washington County Election Board voted unanimously Monday to recommend that Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb., be chosen from among five vendors to provide new voting equipment at a price tag of $2,870,745.
“This was, in my opinion, the best system,” said Elections Director Melanie Ostrander during the two-hour meeting at the Courthouse Square office building.
Washington County expects $235,526 appropriated by Congress in 2018 for “election security” through the state to be deducted from the final bill.
Election board Chairman William Knestrick requested a demonstration of the ES&S equipment from startup before voters arrive at a polling place, through the voting process, and how the machines are handled once the polls close.
The county purchased its Diebold direct-record electronic machines for $1.8 million in 2006 to replace the punch card system in use since the 1980s. The TSX touchscreens have a life expectancy of 10 to 12 years.
Washington County voters in 2020 will encounter additional steps in the process. They will first insert a blank ballot card that contains thermal-imaging paper into a touchscreen device to select candidates.
When voters have finished selecting, they will place the paper ballot into a scanner, which will make a digital copy of both sides of the ballot before it drops into a locked storage area.
Those manning the polls on behalf of the elections office will collect data from the images from a special memory stick or flash drive which is used to tabulate votes at the elections office.
The device “scrambles” the images many times during Election Day so the ballots cannot be matched with the order in which people arrive to vote, said Joseph Passarella, regional sales manager for ES&S.
Election board member John Tecklenburg asked how voters will know to navigate between the first and second devices.
“That’s up to the county,” Passarella said.
One possibility is having people stationed at Washington County voting precincts to “shepherd” voters through the process.
If someone leaves a poll with ballot in a pocket or handbag and realizes his or her mistake, the voter can return to the polling place, have the ballot relegated as “spoilage” and begin the process anew.
Former Washington County elections director Larry Spahr told of a tearful voter who contacted him soon after the county first deployed touchscreen machines. She was holding her toddler while she voted and he began randomly touching the device’s screen, including the “cast ballot” option. She wanted to void her vote and try again, but Spahr said it was not permitted.
Todd Urosevich, also a regional sales manager for ES&S, called it “universal” that a voter gets no more than three ballots to try and cast a vote.
“Three strikes and you’re out,” said Urosevich, who advocated for “voter education” and demonstrations in advance of the 2020 contests.
Although the machines are designed to be plugged into electrical outlets, their battery life in the event of a power outage will be two to six hours.
The commissioners’ offices are on the ballot this year, so they are prohibited by law from serving as election board members.
In years when the commissioners run, Washington County Court appoints substitute election board members.
Attorney Erin Dickerson joined Knestrick and Tecklenburg in choosing ES&S.
The substitute election board does not have the power of the purse, so their recommendation will be forwarded to the Washington County commissioners for an up or down vote.
Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said the board could act as early as Oct. 3 on the purchase, for which the county plans to pay for from its natural gas and oil revenues rather than finance over a long term.
“We’d like to get this started as soon as possible and make sure people are educated on it. The sooner the better,” he said, holding out the possibility that if other counties also choose ES&S, they could be part of a coalition that would bring down the price for all. Whether that materializes, the county will be buying 600 touchscreen machines and 180 scanners with ballot box bins and 10 scanners as backups.
Greene Countians voted on ES&S equipment for the first time in the May 21 primary.
“The machines did great,” said Elections Director Tina Kiger. “Our people had very few issues, and I think the majority of our voters felt very comfortable with it.”
No one who came to the polls requested a paper ballot in lieu of using the new devices, she said.
Kiger conducted several public demonstrations in advance of the primary.
“I think we are done, but if anybody would like a demo, we will go out and do that. We also have machines inside the election office for demos.”
Pennsylvania’s path toward requiring a paper trail grew out of a lawsuit Green Party candidate Jill Stein filed after the 2016 presidential election. She demanded a recount but 83% of the voting machines used in the state did not provide a paper trail that could be used to double-check votes.
Maggi said, “We looked at all the equipment at some of our conferences.”
In addition to ES&S, under consideration were Dominion Voting Systems, Clear Ballot Group, Hart InterCivic and Unisyn Voting Solutions.