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Paper or electronic? Somerset County commissioners leaning toward a return to paper ballots

December 11, 2018

Somerset County has three elections remaining before a state mandate will require the county to have new voting machines in place.

The commissioners are leaning toward returning to paper ballots.

“It’s a lot cheaper, less costly and a lot of people in the public would really like to see us use the paper ballots,” Commissioner John Vatavuk said.

In April the Pennsylvania Department of State informed counties that they had to have a new paper-verified system in place for the 2020 general election. The county’s electronic machines do not produce a paper trail.

“We believe Pennsylvanians should be voting on the most secure, accessible and auditable voting machines available,” department spokeswoman Wanda Murren said. “Our plan was solidified with the settlement of a lawsuit filed by Jill Stein and the Green Party in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Under the terms of the settlement, the department must continue on the timeline it established in April.”

There are two replacement systems certified by the department, and paperwork is being prepared for a third.

“There are two other systems that have completed initial testing and should complete supplemental testing within the next few weeks,” she said. “We expect that one additional system will be submitted for examination in January.”

Somerset County’s voting machines were purchased in 2006, at a cost of $3,400 per machine, with federal grant money. The county has 236 machines. The state will receive $14 million, mostly in federal funding, to assist 67 counties with replacement. Vatavuk said the county is set to receive $77,000 of that amount.

“If they were going to fund it 100 percent, it would be a no-brainer,” he said.

Commissioner Pat Terlingo said he cannot see spending more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars to replace the machines.

“I feel it is fiscally responsible to take a look at all angles,” he said. “To spend that kind of money . . . is not in the best interest in Somerset County.”

Commissioner Gerald Walker said the fact that the machines are not fully funded helped them make their decision to go back to paper.

“John has said for years he liked the idea of going back to paper,” he said. “With this mandate and the limited amount of funds to replace our machines, that made the decision pretty easy.”

Walker said voters would vote on paper that would be counted by a scanner. The scanner can process 4,000 ballots an hour. Walker said under this plan the county would purchase two scanners and an ADA machine for each precinct. He did not have a cost estimate.

Murren said Susquehanna County was the first county to accept delivery of its new voting system, which was used in the November election.

“Last week, Philadelphia put out an RFP (request for proposals) for its new systems,” she said. “From our talks with counties, we believe there are between six and 12 counties that will have new systems in use by the 2019 primary.”

Somerset County Elections Director Tina Pritts said she does not think paper ballots are the right decision. She said paper ballots are easy to manipulate and slow to process.

“My concern is they will have to count the write-in votes at the precinct before the boxes are brought in,” she said. “Results won’t be available until early the next day.”