By Chris Hunsinger, Second Vice President
First, I am sharing with you the website for all things voting related in Pennsylvania. When you visit VotesPA.com, you can find your polling place, update your voter registration, apply for an absentee ballot, and more. I want to focus this article though on voting machines and the push to revamp our voting equipment across the country. I want to explain how you need to be a part of this process, so we can guarantee our right and ability to vote independently into the future.
We just had a primary election in May of this year. Were you able to vote privately on an accessible voting machine? You may well be able to influence what your county does when it must pick new voting equipment in 2019 or 2020.
Just a little background is in order. The Help America Vote Act, otherwise known as HAVA, put a lot of Federal money out there for states to modernize their voting equipment at the beginning of the century. As people with disabilities we were guaranteed private accessible voting. Most jurisdictions began using voting equipment which gave us our privacy and made voting accessible. In Pennsylvania, currently, this accessible equipment does not have a paper trail. Now that voting fraud and voting security are foremost in the decision-making of the people running the voting process, new voting equipment will have to be bought that includes a paper trail. Again, this year, Congress has made Federal money available primarily to cover election security issues. About thirteen million dollars is available for Pennsylvania. That will by no means cover the full cost of changing the equipment.
The easiest and least expensive way to create a paper trail is to use paper ballots with a pen that will then be scanned. Those ballots would then be counted using electronic scanning equipment. If there are questions about the validity of the count, the paper ballots can be counted by hand or using a scanner again. That would mean that the ballot wouldn’t be accessible for most of us who don’t see well or at all. However, there is another set of solutions to the voting issue which may be more expensive but would give us privacy and accessibility. There are voting machines that talk, let us make our choices, review the choices before printing the ballot, and finally allow us to check the printed ballot for accuracy by listening to our choices again from the printed ballot before putting the ballot into the secure ballot box.
Pennsylvania voting machine certification requirements now state that there should be a voter verifiable paper ballot or voter verifiable paper record of your vote. That means that reviewing the ballot before it is printed, alone, won’t satisfy that requirement. Pennsylvania is in the process of certifying new voting machines from several vendors. Counties will then be able to choose from the different vender’s equipment. The counties will be able to choose both equipment and features within the equipment chosen.
I am part of an advisory group created under a grant that Disability Rights of Pennsylvania has obtained which is evaluating equipment and making accessibility recommendations. We hope to give our recommendations to the Department of State in Harrisburg, but we also will be making the findings available to the public so that people can go to their counties and speak intelligently about what accessibility choices should be available, and which certified machines offer the best choices.
In the past the counties were only required to have one accessible voting machine per precinct. This might likely be considered by some as a separate but equal voting method. However, if the ballot created by the accessible voting machine looks different from the ballot that other voters cast, and if there are only a few people in a precinct using the accessible machine, it won’t be quite private. In fact, in the past, in many cases, one or no people have used an accessible machine in a precinct. We will need to get in touch with our county boards of elections to explain why accessible private voting is important to us and why it just makes sense that all voters use or be offered the same choices when voting.
All machines in use now in Pennsylvania will be decertified sometime in 2019 and the counties will have to pick new voting equipment from the machines being certified now in the state of Pennsylvania. One machine has been certified so far. I have not seen that machine, and I don’t know anything about its accessibility features. Several vendors who are seeking certification were in Harrisburg at the end of April showing off their new equipment. I saw those machines, and I got to use the accessibility features. When I asked about completeness of instructions or voice choices on machines, I was told that the buyer could make choices or specify how much instruction would be given. All the machines worked, but some were easier to use than others, and since they have not yet been certified, I don’t yet know what the final machine choices will be.
It is important to understand that each county will have flexibility to account for its particular needs when it chooses its equipment. The number of voters, or the number of precincts may well influence what equipment a county buys. But also, different counties may for some reason want to handle the accessibility features differently choosing different vendors. For example, one county could pick equipment so that when the printed ballot comes out, you can put it back through the machine to see if it really printed out what you wanted. Another system could be configured so that when you put the ballot into the scanner that would total your vote, the scanner could read it to you before counting the ballot and if you thought that it was wrong, you could recall your ballot. Another machine could be configured with the tabulating equipment as part of the voting machine so that after printing you could review the ballot inside the machine and then decide to cast it.
We don’t yet know which of these machines will be certified in Pennsylvania, and we don’t know which features each county will choose to buy. We are not even sure how detailed the Department of State regulations for machines will be once the machines are certified. You, as a voter, should take every opportunity to influence your county’s decision on what is needed for accessible private voting. That VotesPA.com website can provide you with the contact information for your county’s election officials. I will keep you updated as more information becomes available on which machines have been certified later this year.