7 solutions for Pennsylvania’s problems at the polls

Lessons from this year’s election in Pennsylvania could avoid a mess in 2020.

Bags for ballots sit in the York County elections office on Nov. 6, 2019. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

Bags for ballots sit in the York County elections office on Nov. 6, 2019. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

Paper jams, long lines, incorrect results: Some voters and elections officials encountered problems on Tuesday as 35 counties rolled out new voting machines.

York County officials issued a public apology Tuesday evening after voters complained of delays and other problems with the county’s new $1.4 million paper-ballot systems.

In the Lehigh Valley’s Northampton County, some voters waited more than an hour to vote because of paper jams and other problems with the county’s new $2.8 million touch-screen system. And after the polls closed, officials discovered that the system wasn’t tabulating results correctly. Ultimately, the election workers spent all night recounting nearly 58,000 paper ballots, and they and the company that manufactured the voting system face the task of figuring out what went wrong and how to fix it going forward.

And while the Pennsylvania Department of State says the vast majority of people voted without problems, there were smaller-scale glitches across the state, including complaints about Sharpie markers and sensitive touch screens.

Turnout will be larger next year for the presidential race. And, thanks to a lawsuit by 2016 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and actions by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, all counties in Pennsylvania will need to have machines with a voter-verifiable paper record for the April 2020 primary. It’s expected machines will be used for the first time that day in 22 counties.

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Here are seven ideas to make the process run smoother next year.

1.) Buy more machines

That’s what York County is considering. Local Republican and Democratic party leaders both say it’s necessary before the April 2020 presidential primary.

The machines bought by the county used a paper-ballot system that requires voters to fill out a physical ballot by hand, then insert it into a scanning machine so votes can be recorded.

The county had one optical scanner for each of its 159 polling locations, said county spokesperson Mark Walters. That wasn’t enough for more crowded polling places, county leaders said. The county’s president commissioner, Susan Byrnes, said some polling places had about an hour wait time.

In one voting precinct, hundreds of people filled out ballots. But then they left the polling place — either because they couldn’t wait or didn’t want to — before they could scan their ballots. That issue prompted complaints and a dispute with the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. The county and the state GOP reached an agreement over how those ballots would be securely counted.

The county might buy more scanners — at a cost of about $4,900 each.

If the county bought one additional optical scanner for each of its 159 polling locations, the bill would total nearly $800,000.

“It is a lot of money,” said York County Commissioner Doug Hoke.

But Hoke said the county might not need to buy an additional scanner for each polling place.

“We just have to evaluate based on history, how many people are going to be coming out,” he said.

Montgomery County debuted the same system last spring and experienced similar issues. The county bought more scanners for some of their highest-volume precincts in advance of Tuesday’s election, as reported in this WHYY story.

“Montco bought additional scanners since then and media reports indicated things went much more smoothly Tuesday,” said Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Department of State.

2.) Relocate polling locations

Commissioner Byrnes in York County said schools would be better hosts than many of the current polling locations. She said schools have more parking, better lighting, better accommodations for people with disabilities, and more space inside.

“When I went to vote, I was in this little tiny room and there wasn’t a whole lot of space and there wasn’t a whole lot of privacy,” she said. “So, absolutely, we will be addressing that.”

Susan Byrnes, president of the board of commissioners, listens during a meeting on Nov. 6, 2019. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

Larger venues also could allow the county to consolidate the number of polling stations, making it possible to shift more staff and machines in busier locations.

3.) Pay attention to the paper

Make sure you use the right size, to start. The Department of State says that was one of the problems in York County.

And consider using a bigger envelope for mailed ballots. Folds in absentee ballots jammed scanners in some counties.

Mercer County elections director Jeff Greenburg floated that fix on election night after the scanner jams prevented several dozen ballots from being processed by machine. Greenburg said the county will also explore higher-capacity scanners for the main elections office in anticipation of an uptick in mailed ballots next year when voters can use that option without an excuse.

Chester County used the same scanner — the ES&S DS200 — and had a similar issue that affected between 3 and 4 percent of absentee ballots. Like Mercer, Chester will scan the problem ballots during the certification process starting today in most counties, according to county spokeswoman Becky Brain.

Counties that switched to paper ballots this year and had judges up for retention faced a complication. The state constitution requires judicial retention questions appear on a separate ballot, according to Murren with the Department of State.

So, for York County, that meant voters needed to fill out two ballots and then place them in an optical-scanner — which made the shortage of scanners an even bigger problem.

Those retention elections are held in odd number election years, not at the same time as the presidential election.

A Northampton County polling location is seen on Nov. 5, 2019. (Ed Mahon/PA Post)

4.)  Encourage people to vote by mail

This is a big one because it stands to mitigate other concerns about how Pennsylvania administers elections. Starting next year, voters can apply for an absentee ballot without providing an excuse. Cutting down on the number of people who vote in person will alleviate problems with election worker shortages, long lines, the need for larger venues, etc.

Amber McReynolds, executive director of the Vote at Home Institute & Coalition, oversaw Colorado switch to a primarily mail-based system with physical voting centers, for those who need them, located throughout the state based on voter registration.

To encourage more absentee voting, McReynolds says Pennsylvania could consider a mass mailer (that would cost about $2.5 million) in addition to a digital messaging push on multiple social media platforms. She says inserts in mailings already going out from other state agencies could work, too. The state government should coordinate its campaign with stakeholder groups and community/service organizations to ensure the word gets out to as many Pennsylvanians as possible, she says.

5.) Reconsider the Sharpie

Paper ballots need to be marked by each voter, and filling in circles leaves room for user error. The ink from Sharpies applies easily, dries faster and is less likely to smudge than ink from ballpoint pens.

But voters in several counties noticed that Sharpie ink bled through the paper ballots; they questioned whether their votes would be counted as intended. In some cases, scanners interpreted the bleed-throughs as overvotes and rejected ballots.

The issue prompted Jefferson County elections director Karen Lupone to order poll workers to stop using Sharpies in favor of ballpoint pens early in the day – and that switch seemed to work, Lupone said.

6.) Better poll worker training

Greenburg says he’ll spend more time demonstrating how to fix scanner jams at future election worker trainings. Precincts throughout Mercer flooded his office with calls asking for help with jams as they worked to scan absentee ballots after polls closed.

Montgomery beefed up its poll worker training after some snags in the rollout there during the May primary.

7.) Take another look at your machines

In York County, Commissioner Hoke said the county needs to review many things, including whether it bought the right machines in the first place.

“We have to make sure that we have the proper equipment … and if the machines meet the standards that we should be looking at,” Hoke said. “…If there’s more money we’re going to have to spend, we have to make it right.”

Hoke isn’t leading the charge to switch machines in York County. But he says the county needs to make sure it has the right ones.

Of all the possible solutions listed, switching machines would be the biggest lift, requiring counties to negotiate new contracts with vendors, retrain workers and reeducate voters.

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