Westmoreland delays election machine purchase
Westmoreland County officials said Monday the planned purchase of new voting equipment this summer will likely be delayed after state lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf failed to agree on funding for election system upgrades throughout Pennsylvania.
“We were on track to make a decision this summer, but we’re on hold now as far as I am concerned. We’re kind of in limbo,” Commissioner Charles Anderson said.
County officials previously said they expected a voting system to be purchased this summer and online for the November general election.
Wolf late last week vetoed legislation passed in the Republican-led state House and Senate that would have authorized up to $90 million in funding for counties to purchase voting systems. Wolf, a Democrat, originally proposed $75 million in funding to upgrade county voting systems, but that figure was increased in the bill sent to the governor last month. It included other election law changes, such as outlawing straight ticket partisan voting.
In vetoing the bill, Wolf said eliminating the one-button voting for all party candidates on the ballot could create voter confusion and longer lines at the polls.
Counties, such as Westmoreland, were mandated by the governor to upgrade voting systems in time for the 2020 presidential election. The new voting systems are required to include a verifiable paper trail to ensure votes cast are properly tallied.
The 880 touch-screen computers used to vote in Westmoreland County since 2005 — which replaced old-fashioned lever voting machines — do not have the ability to produce paper receipts of ballots cast.
After a series of open houses last summer in which vendors demonstrated machines that meet the state’s new standards, county officials said they planned to make a purchase this year. Commissioners set aside $8.2 million to buy voting machines using money from a $44 million loan taken out earlier this year to pay for a series of capital projects.
“Part of our decision has to be based on how much assistance we get from the state. We have the money, but I’m still not going to commit spending any money until I know how much help we’re getting,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.
He said the county expected to receive about $3 million in state grants to help pay for the cost of the machines and won’t move forward until there is a guarantee of funding.
“We just ran out of time. Harrisburg has to be able to separate official business from politics, and they failed to do so,” Kopas said.
Commissioner Gina Cerilli did not indicate the county’s next move.
“We are waiting to find out the anticipated dollar amount from the state,” she wrote in an email.
Proposals for new voting systems were sorted through this spring, and two final options were selected, ranging from $4 million to $8 million, according to Beth Lechman, the county’s elections bureau director. One option is essentially a paper ballot voters fill out, then place through a scanner for tallying. A second, more expensive system, would use a computer to simulate the old-style lever voting machines.
Lechman said there is no longer enough time to have a new system purchased and put in place for November.
“We need about four months to have voter outreach, planning and to train poll workers on the new machines,” Lechman said. “So now, we’re looking to have the new system in place for April 2020.”
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .