Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

No Ballot Changes, Please. How Allegheny Co. Spent Last 6 Months On Voting Machine Prep

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA


It takes 10 full-time employees, a supervisor and some temp workers several months to ready the voting machines for Election Day.


“The logistics of getting this all together, it’s amazing,” said Mark Wolosik, Allegheny County Election Division Manager.


Delivery of nearly 4,700 voting machines to 850 different polling places today begins today, but the work started just days after the April primary.


The work begins with simple tasks, like rolling up power cords, fixing wobbly stands and cleaning all those well used touch screens. Then it starts to get a little more technical when the crew turns its attention to memory cards that need to be removed, relabeled and erased.


“The votes that were there from the primary are still on there, so you have to clear that out and the machine runs a self diagnostic test,” Wolosik said.


And that is all just to get them ready to be tested by an independent auditor that makes sure none of the original source code burned onto the machines has been altered.  


In the meantime, the election division has to clear and reprogram every one of those cartridges poll workers shove into the machines just before you vote, know as Personalized Electronic Ballots.


“It’s burned for the candidates that are on the ballot in that precinct and when that cartridge is placed in the machine it then just brings up those candidates,” Wolosik explained.


Not all of the work is done internally—the county sends out the ballots to an audio production house to be recorded so that those with vision impairments can plug headphones into the machines and vote.


Testing for Trojan Horses


Wolosik said first there is the “logic and accuracy test” where all of the machines are electronically test voted in the presence of political party representatives, and the results are tabulated.  Each different ballot style—of which there can be nearly 1,000 for various precincts during municipal elections—must also be tested on the machines by hand.


During that testing, the machine’s internal clocks are set to Election Day, to help ensure there are no “Trojan Horses” hidden in the programing that will only pop up that day.   


While conducting the testing, the county is simultaneously preparing a suitcase full of materials for each precinct, to accompany the machines.  Those cases are packed with a printer, legal notices, provisional ballots and the voter registration list for that precinct.  


The goal is to have all that work done about a month before Election Day with the hope that the courts don’t make any late rulings on a candidate or a ballot question.


“Because if you make any change to this ballot, you have to start all this testing all over again, because you’ve changed the database,” Wolosik said.


The final push to election day


Even if there aren’t any ballot updates, the machines have to be turned on one more time to make sure none of those test votes are stuck in the memory. They’re then individually labeled for one of 1,322 precincts and sealed with a tamper-evident tag.  


Over the next week, those machines will be delivered to the polling places by a contractor who is shadowed by a county employee to make sure the machines stay safe.  


Then, just one hour before the polls open on Tuesday morning, the poll workers finally receive access to the machines.


“You have to set up the tables up, (post legal) papers, do all this stuff,” said Frank Sciulli, who has served as judge of elections in his Crafton polling place.  “It takes about 59 minutes and 48 seconds to get everything set up.”


When the voting is done, poll workers, count the votes, pack up the machines and paperwork, and return the suitcase full of materials.


“It always all worked out and I didn’t realize how much time people had to put in there,” Sciulli said.


The next morning, the trucks will start arriving to retrieve the machines. They’re then hauled back to the warehouse, where Wolosik said it starts all over again.

To make informed decisions, the public must receive unbiased truth.

As Southwestern Pennsylvania’s only independent public radio news and information station, we give voice to provocative ideas that foster a vibrant, informed, diverse and caring community.

WESA is primarily funded by listener contributions. Your financial support comes with no strings attached. It is free from commercial or political influence…that’s what makes WESA a free vital community resource. Your support funds important local journalism by WESA and NPR national reporters.

You give what you can, and you get news you can trust.
Please give now to continue providing fact-based journalism — a monthly gift of just $5 or $10 makes a big difference.