Allegheny County to ‘stress test’ prospective voting systems
The Allegheny County Board of Elections committee in charge of searching for a new voting system decided Friday to spend the next month working with vendors to test prospective systems, seeking confirmation that they can handle the high volume of complex contests in the county.
A report submitted Aug. 19 by the Voting System Search Committee and discussed Friday indicates that only one of four vendors under consideration has the state and federal certification guaranteeing it can meet the county’s needs. The committee is comprised of officials from the county elections, law, purchasing, computer services, budget and finance, human resources, county manager and administrative services departments.
“I was surprised too,” said board chair and Allegheny County Councilman Thomas Baker, R-Ross. “I thought we would have a couple options that were viable that we would be able to pick from. I’m learning at the same pace that you’re all learning. I had no sense, as chairman, what would be in the report.”
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 the report. 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 is considering nine systems proposed by four vendors: Clear Ballot, Dominion Voting, Election Systems & Software (ES&S) and Hart InterCivic.
ES&S is the only vendor that is certified by state and federal authorities to meet the county’s needs.
“I want to be sure if we hand [millions of dollars] to ES&S, who say they’ve been certified that they can do it, that they can do it,” said board vice chair and Allegheny County Family Court Judge Kathryn Hens-Greco, who made the motion to ask the search committee to conduct the stress tests. “They say they can, and they’ve been certified. Can they really do it? I’d like to see them do it.”
It has yet to be determined whether the stress test will be conducted by the state or local officials, Hens-Greco said.
This round of testing will likely push the board’s decision to late September. The next Board of Elections meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9.
Over a dozen voting-rights advocates spoke at the meeting, urging the board — as they have for months — to only consider systems that use hand-marked paper ballots and that do not use a bar code or QR code to tabulate votes.
Hand-marked paper ballots were deemed the most secure option by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security. The commission is led by experts from University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security and others across the state.
Only one of the four systems proposed by ES&S uses hand-marked paper ballots, further narrowing the field of choices.
That system has drawbacks. For example, ballots that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act are easily distinguishable from the rest, said Ron Bandes, president of the voter advocacy group Vote Allegheny.
Bandes also raised concerns about the ethics of ES&S. The company is facing fines for not disclosing lobbying efforts in Philadelphia. Elections officials in Westmoreland, Butler and Washington counties were among the those flagged by the state auditor general’s office in 18 counties earlier this year for accepting gifts from ES&S.
“They are not a company I believe we should be partners with,” Bandes said. “And make no mistake: We’re not buying sand, or some commodity. We’re buying a complicated system that requires that they partner with us for the long haul.”
Alisa Grishman, a disability advocate, asked the board to gather more feedback from people with disabilities. The needs of people who are deaf, blind or who cannot cast a ballot independently have not been adequately considered, she said.
“The people who are actually directly affected are not the people who are being talked to about any of this,” Grishman said.
Correction (Sept. 3): The story has been updated to reflect that the ES&S system would not use bar codes to tabulate hand-marked ballots.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .