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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Pa. restarts plan to upgrade voter registration and election management systems

A sheet of stickers reading "I voted today."
Matt Slocum
Vote stickers are seen at a satellite election office at Temple University's Liacouras Center, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Philadelphia.

After a multi-year delay, the state is back on track to upgrade several software systems to manage election data like voter registrations, election-night reporting and campaign finance figures.

The previous administration under Gov. Tom Wolf started the effort to overhaul the statewide voter registration system, but the vendor chosen for that project and the state both agreed to cancel the project.

Now, the state restarted its expanded effort by releasing a request for proposals. The request includes detailed information on what it expects the new system to be able to do, like handle mail ballot data more efficiently and streamline data entry for election officials.

The voter registration and election management system was designed in 2002, before changes like no-excuse mail-in voting occurred.

Mark Lindeman is the Policy and Strategy Director for the election technology nonprofit Verified Voting, and has worked with Pennsylvania’s election officials on several aspects of its voting systems.

“The ultimate problem is that the system simply can’t deliver all the functionality that election officials need,” Lindeman said. “So it makes sense to replace the system.”

Even though the current system is old, Lindeman said he does not have particular concerns about its security, a question legislators have brought up to the Department of State.

“Computer security, per se, doesn’t degrade with time,” Lindeman said. “What matters the most is who can access the system and how they can access the system.”

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The Department of State issues security guidelines to counties, and requires them sign an equipment use policy related to the voter registration system, according to a point-by-point response from the department to representatives Brad Roae (R-Erie) and Dawn Keefer (R-York).

Rose and Keefer both supported Donald Trump’s 2020 election-fraud lie by signing a letter urging members of Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes going to Joe Biden. They are now using their positions on the House’s State Government Committee to ask the Department of State questions about election systems and security.

The request for proposals for the new system also includes extensive security requirements. The Department of Homeland Security designated election systems as critical infrastructure in 2017, requiring certain security standards to be met in all current and future election systems.

Lindeman said the state has built in patches and upgrades to the current system, but a new system designed from the ground up is much more likely to give elections officials the tools they need.

Ryan Craig, assistant elections director for Montour County, said his top priority in a new system is streamlined functionality.

The current system requires a lot of downtime, he said, as it can take a while for data in one part to transfer over to another. That problem only gets worse when traffic goes up, like during a major election.

Vendors have until Aug. 1 to offer a plan to build an integrated system including voter records, campaign finance, election-night reporting and election management.

Once one is chosen, the contract is slated to run for four years, with an option for up to three additional years.

Columbia County’s head of elections, Matthew Repasky, said recent upgrades to the current system called the Statewide Uniform Registry of Voters, or SURE, have resolved many of his complaints ahead of the November general election.

The Department of State has upgraded both hardware and software in each county, and is working to improve connectivity speeds across the commonwealth, too.

“I’ve seen improvement from when SURE was in a state where there were issues with it possibly being slow and maybe a little bit behind the times. I am not currently experiencing those things,” Repasky said.

Secretary of State Al Schmidt has told Senate and House committees this year’s elections will be safe, secure and reliable.

Read more from our partners, WITF.