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Last-Minute Bill Amendment Addresses Scanner, Privacy Issues At The Polls

Tom Downing/WITF
Emily Previti/PA Post
Pennsylvania counties must have voting machines featuring voter-verifiable, individually audit-able paper ballots in place no later than the presidential primary April 28, 2020, as per the settlement to a lawsuit over Pa.'s election system filed in 2016.

A bill headed to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk is expected to address some of the problems experienced by counties that rolled out new voting systems during the general election earlier this month.

All counties are required to have election systems in place for the presidential primary next spring. The systems must use paper ballots or generate paper copies of electronically cast votes, under the terms of a lawsuit settlement.

More than half of them debuted voting machines during the general election earlier this month – and some experienced problems.

The new rules would require counties to give voters more privacy while casting their ballots.

The changes respond to voter complaints that their votes could be read by poll workers and other voters when they went to scan their ballot, despite counties providing folders for shield ballots from view.

The legislation would also do away with ballot stubs. Voters using a hand or machine-marked ballot tear off the stubs before putting their ballot in a vote scanner.  In York County, the perforations left behind contributed to scanner jams and voting delays.

State Sen. Kristen Phillips-Hill, R-York, added the new rules earlier this week to a bill modifying the law on school director nominating petitions.

Kevin Skoglund, co-founder of Citizens for Better Elections, says the stubs can flag a type of voter fraud known as “chain voting” because poll workers tearing off the stubs could notice if the number (which reflect a multi-ballot batch, not individual ballots) on the stub is way off from other ballots being cast at that time.

But in some counties, election directors say the stubs don’t serve any practical purpose and add to ballot-printing costs .

“It’s the 1937 version of the ‘I Voted” sticker,’ said Lancaster County Elections Director Randall Wenger. “There’s a privacy benefit as well. Voters won’t be removing them while in line or getting poll worker assistance to do so. Not that poll workers care what’s on the ballot, but the perception of privacy is [important].”

Phillips-Hill’s amendments go further than that indirect benefit. 

They also require the Secretary of State to review counties’ plans for ensuring voters can cast ballots in secrecy and mandates that counties stick to that plan on Election Day and document that each polling place has the supplies necessary to assure voter privacy.

The legislation deliberately doesn’t get into more specifics so counties have flexibility to do what works for them, said Phillips-Hill’s chief of staff, Jon Hopcraft.

PA Post is a digital-first, citizen-focused news organization that connects Pennsylvanians with accountability and deep-dive reporting. For more stories from PA Post, visit PaPost.org.