Controversy swirls around new Philadelphia city voting system

Philadelphia election officials are about to select a new voting system, and critics say they’ve tilted the process toward one high-priced bidder.

Voting machines at the Office of the City Commissioner's warehouse (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Voting machines at the Office of the City Commissioner's warehouse (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Philadelphia’s three city commissioners, who run local elections, may announce the selection of a new voting system as soon as Wednesday, and it may leave some disappointed.

“We’re worried the city commissioners are going to pick a voting system that is not only very expensive, but not a good system for security,” said Rich Garella of the group Citizens for Better Elections. “It has poor access for disabled people. It’s a bad choice.”

The state is requiring all counties to get new voting machines this year that generate paper ballot backups.

City commissioners are mum about what kind of voting system they might recommend at their Wednesday meeting, but Garella and State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the city’s selection process seems tilted toward a particular system and a single vendor.

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For months, an evaluation committee of city officials has been examining voting systems available from vendors approved by state and federal regulators.

DePasquale said at a Monday news conference that the city’s request for proposals “does appear that it was written in favor of one vendor.”

That vendor is Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, known as ES&S, the largest manufacturer of voting systems in the country.

The ES&S Express Vote XL system is the only one sold in the U.S. that shows voters all candidates for all races on one electronic screen.

Philadelphia has used “full-face” voting systems for decades, and the request for proposals says the city is looking for a system with the “ability to provide a ballot face and style that accommodates the City’s large candidate pool and offers a familiar look and feel, as well as ease of use, to voters.

Garella and representatives of community and activist groups plan a rally Tuesday to demonstrate support for hand-marked paper ballots. With that approach, voters note their choices with pens, then send the ballots into a scanner for counting.

Several vendors can provide hand-marked ballot systems, but only ES&S offers the “full-face” electronic ballot.

The commissioners and their staff have made several trips to other cities to observe different voting systems in practice.

A clean process?

Several people who attended two public hearings hastily called by the city commissioners complained that the selection process has been rushed.

Commissioners concur the timetable is aggressive, but they say that was dictated by the state’s requirements and the desire to have a new system in place in for the Nov. 5 election.

The change means acquiring hundreds of pieces of equipment and training city staff as well as thousands of polling place workers, the commissioners said. They’d like to do that first in a lower turnout election rather than the 2020 presidential contest.

DePasquale said he’s concerned that the money to be made by voting system vendors could lead to the vendors or their representatives offering inducements to public officials.

He cited two trips accepted by Luzerne County’s election director from ES&S systems, which has sold the county election equipment and services.

In December, DePasquale wrote election officials across the state asking if any of them had accepted trips or gifts from voting machine companies or their lobbyists.

Deputy Philadelphia City Commissioner Nick Custodio responded with a letter Monday listing several trips officials had taken to investigate voting systems, all paid for by the city or the officials themselves.

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