Study finds huge difference in cost of new voting machines for Pennsylvania counties
Seven of the 31 Pennsylvania counties that purchased new voting machines opted for a system that cost nearly twice as much as one ranked more secure, according to a new report from the University of Pittsburgh and Citizens for Better Elections.
Counties across the state are rushing to buy new voting systems to address cybersecurity issues in time for the 2020 election. Both Allegheny and Westmoreland counties are in the final stages of vetting vendors.
Statewide, officials estimate costs for the new machines could total $150 million.
Christopher Deluzio, policy director for Pitt’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, said he and Kevin Skoglund, co-founder of Citizens for Better Elections, analyzed data from counties that already made purchases. They were surprised to see that some had opted for exclusively electronic ballot-marking devices at an average of $23.35 per voter, or nearly twice the $12.51-per-voter cost of systems that rely principally on hand-marked paper ballots, supplemented with ballot-marking devices for handicapped voters.
The electronic ballot-marking machines are similar in appearance to the touch-screen machines many counties have used for the past 20 years, while the hand-marked paper ballot systems call for voters to mark paper ballots that are then fed into electronic scanners.
The critical factors with both systems are the security of the system and the creation of a physical trail that can be audited should questions arise.
Officials in Westmoreland County, who solicited proposals and narrowed their choice to two finalists earlier this year, put their purchase on hold briefly in July when it became unclear how much the county would receive in state subsidies to underwrite the cost.
At the time, Westmoreland Election Bureau director Beth Lechman said officials were weighing two final options, including one for a paper ballot that would be placed in a scanner for tabulation and a second, more expensive system that would use an electronic ballot-marking system. She said prices for the two systems ranged from $4 million to $8 million.
Earlier this summer, Allegheny County officials demonstrated four systems the county was considering, including paper ballots that would be fed into a scanner and electronic ballot-marking systems.
Deluzio said he and Skoglund found 24 counties that purchased new voting systems chose the paper ballot route, a system that allows for electronic enhancements for handicapped voters. Seven counties, including Philadelphia, bought pricier electronic ballot-marking systems.
“There is remarkable consensus among experts, including the Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security, that paper ballots are the most secure option for voters,” Deluzio said. “Our new analysis confirms that hand-marked paper ballots are a relative bargain compared to electronic ballot-marking devices.”
“It’s the rare case where a public servant or elected official gets to make a decision for a product that is both cheaper and better. And that is the choice counties here are facing,” Deluzio said.
He speculated that some counties may have opted for the pricier systems because they appear similar to current voting machines.
He said, in addition to being more secure, the hand-marked ballot systems provide for swifter voting. When more voters show up at peak times, the poll workers can expand the number of areas where ballots can be cast. With the electronic ballot-marking systems, the number of machines is fixed, leading to delays and lines when more voters appear.
The new report is the second to weigh in on the cost benefits of hand-marked ballots. A study in Georgia estimated that state could save $90 million statewide by purchasing a hand-marked ballot system.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .