Allegheny County Board of Elections chooses voting system vendor
The Allegheny County Board of Elections voted Wednesday to move forward with contract negotiations with the vendor Elections Systems & Software (ES&S) to purchase new voting equipment for the county.
The system will cost about $10.5 million — the cheapest of the four options offered by ES&S. The county is expected to receive state aid to pay for the system.
The decision was already delayed several weeks following an August meeting, when the board decided to first conduct a stress test to determine whether the four vendors under consideration could handle the high volume of complex contests in the county.
ES&S was the only vendor that could immediately meet the county’s needs without jeopardizing the elections, said Tom Baker, R-Ross, chair of the Board of Elections and member of Allegheny County Council.
“At the end of the day, when you’re going to spend $10 million plus on a system, it has to be the one that’s certified now,” Baker said, adding that ES&S is a “known quantity and something we can trust.”
The voting system’s software must be robust enough to handle up to 4,000 separate ballot styles during a municipal primary election, according to a report issued by the Voting Systems Evaluation Committee, which carried out the search for new voting machines and provided feedback to the county Board of Elections.
That means a system must be able to support an election involving as many as 10,000 candidate positions and 7,000 contests across the county’s 130 municipalities and 43 school districts.
The board considered nine systems proposed by four vendors: Clear Ballot, Dominion Voting, Election Systems & Software (ES&S) and Hart InterCivic.
Hart InterCivic was the favorite among some voting advocates, but the system did not perform well during stress tests earlier this month, board members said.
Hand-marked paper ballots — systems that do not use bar codes to tabulate votes — are widely accepted to be the most secure voting option.
The ES&S system selected by the board does make use of hand-marked paper ballots; however, voters may also choose to cast their vote using the system’s ballot marking devices, which do use bar codes to tabulate votes.
For example, voters who have disabilities that prevent them from hand-marking a paper ballot may choose to use the ballot marking device.
Baker estimated that about 2% of voters will use the ballot marking device.
“99% of voters are getting a fine system,” said Ron Bandes, president of the voter advocacy group Vote Allegheny. “So it’s mainly voters with disabilities and others who choose not to hand-mark a ballot who did not do so well today — that should have gotten ballots that don’t have bar codes reflecting their choices, which makes their ballots unverifiable. And that’s really a terrible situation.”
Bar codes would be less of a concern if the state guaranteed that post-election audits would be conducted, Bandes said.
Board Vice Chair Kathryn M. Hens-Greco, an Allegheny County Family Court judge, said she felt comfortable moving forward with the ES&S contract as long as it requires provisions for robust post-election auditing.
Neither the state nor the county has set requirements for post-election auditing. Allegheny County has issued a request for proposals in a search for a vendor to conduct post-election audits.
“I only felt I could, in good conscience, say we’re going to select ES&S if I simultaneously knew we were going to do the post-election auditing,” Hens-Greco said. “They had to come together, and if they weren’t going to come together, then that was really going to be a big problem for me today.”
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .