Cost no object for Westmoreland commissioners on buying new voting machines | TribLIVE.com
Westmoreland

Cost no object for Westmoreland commissioners on buying new voting machines

Deb Erdley
1841044_web1_GTR-WestyVotes-102519
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Marybeth Kuznik, a Penn Township resident and township judge of elections, shown in the Westmoreland County Courthouse on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, with a new voting machine that will go into use in 2020.

Chuck Anderson, the outgoing Westmoreland County commissioner, said he wanted to ensure county residents had the best voting system available before he leaves office in December.

The $7.1 million touch screen/scanner system he and fellow Commissioners Ted Kopas and Gina Cerilli approved this month will cost $30 per voter — or nearly triple the $11 per voter Allegheny County paid for a new paper ballot/scanner voting system. Total cost for that system was $10.5 million.

The price per voter is based on the number of registered voters. In Allegheny County, there are 952,685 registered voters. In Westmoreland, there are 235,970 voters.

“The people from Westmore­land County expect to have the very best, and this is the best solution to the problem,” Anderson said.

Experts who follow elections and cybersecurity say that’s not true. They maintain touch screen/scanner systems, such as the ES&S product Westmoreland County officials bought, are both more costly and less secure than systems that rely on paper ballots and scanners.

Christopher Deluzio, policy director for the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law and Security, has studied the issue for the past two years.

An ongoing study that looked at what counties paid for voting systems found the average cost in places that bought touch screen/scanner systems was just more than $24 per voter, compared to about $12 per voter for those who bought paper ballot/scanner systems.

Deluzio’s group, however, has looked at more than costs.

“There is a remarkable consensus among experts, including the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security, that paper ballots (deposited in optical scanners) are the most secure option for voters,” Deluzio said.

A U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reached that conclusion while investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Later, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine weighed in with the same conclusion.

Costly order

Questions about election security and old touch-screen voting machines that did not create a paper trail led Gov. Tom Wolf to mandate all Pennsylvania counties to update their voting machines. Wolf required systems that created paper trails in time for the 2020 presidential primary.

Westmoreland County officials hope the state comes through with its initial promise to reimburse them for half of the $7.1 million purchase. If not, they will cover the bill with part of the proceeds of a bond that taxpayers will pay back over 25 years.

Both paper ballot/scanner systems and touch screen/scanner systems were both deemed to meet the state’s criteria for secure elections.

Among those who question why any county would opt for the more costly system touch screen/scanner system are Kevin Skoglund, co-founder of Citizens for Better Elections, and Marybeth Kuznik, founder of VotePA, a statewide alliance dedicated to voting rights and verified elections.

Kuznik, a Penn Township resident and township judge of elections since 1992, said she’s been concerned about the entire process that led to the $7.1 million purchase.

She and several Republican Committee members met with Anderson this summer to discuss their concerns, she said.

“He indicated he didn’t care how much the machines cost, he knew what he wanted. But costs are important. They are borrowing the money for the machines, and the money that was borrowed we have to pay back,” Kuznik said. “It was the least-transparent process I’ve seen.”

It was a process that not only resulted in high costs, but also set Westmoreland County apart from much of the rest of the country. The Brennen Center for Justice estimates about 85% of U.S. voters are expected to use a paper ballot/scanner option by next year’s primary election.

Defending the choice

Anderson, Cerilli and Kopas said they opted to go in a different direction only after a lengthy review process that included both touch-screen and paper ballot options.

None of the three said they were aware of various reports that concluded paper ballots were the more secure option.

“It was a very long process,” Cerilli said. “There were a lot of different demonstrations with voters. And we took into consideration their decisions.”

Initially, officials estimated a new system would cost $4 million to $8 million, depending upon which was selected.

“My personal opinion is paper ballots are an inconvenience for voters,” Kopas said. “We live in a technological world. Everything from banking to credit cards is done on phones.”

Cerilli said since she and Kopas are seeking reelection, Anderson and Common Pleas Judges Christopher Feliciani and Meagan Bilik-DeFazio comprised the Election Board, which recommended the system over several others, including paper ballot/scanner systems.

“It was really the two (judges) and Chuck Anderson who were pushing for it,” Cerilli said.

Feliciani and Bilik-DeFazio did not respond to calls for comment.

Anderson, 77, a retired Marine Corps colonel who was first appointed as a commissioner in 2008, said he has no concerns about election security as he prepares to leave office.

“This was a mandate, and this was what we needed to do,” he said. “This was the best deal for the county. If you’re going to do something, you’ve got do it right. These things are going to last us for 10 years.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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