Dauphin County Playing Chicken With the 2020 Elections

(Philly's New Voting Machines | Photo Credit: WHYY)

Over the past year we’ve been following the roll-out of new voting machines in counties across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which was spurred on by an order from Governor Tom Wolf that counties must be equipped with voting machines that have a paper trail for the 2020 elections, for security reasons. The vast majority of PA counties did not have voting machines that meet these criteria, so this set off a round of voting machine procurement across the state. 

The hard backstop for that order was Wolf’s statement that the Department of State would decertify any voting machines that don’t have a paper trail by early 2020, which would effectively mean not counting the votes in the rogue counties who failed to comply. So far counties that didn’t want to buy new machines have mostly grumbled and postured before finally caving, but now Dauphin County has decided to call the Wolf administration’s bluff and refuse to purchase the new machines with just a few months to maneuver before voting starts.

With an emboldened Republican majority following last week’s County elections, Dauphin officials are setting up a game of Chicken that could have big consequences for voter enfranchisement in the Harrisburg area, with the potential to impact the 2020 election in a crucial Presidential swing state. Via Jonathan Lai's report:

Dauphin has been one of several counties that have resisted buying new voting machines, with its outspoken elections director saying the electronic machines used for more than three decades remain secure and usable. The two Republican county commissioners agreed Wednesday not to buy machines. (A third, Democratic, commissioner, did not attend the meeting.) [...]

State officials have told counties they will decertify existing machines in early 2020, before the primary election in April.

“The Department of State has not reconsidered its decision that all counties must replace older voting systems with ones that produce a voter-verifiable paper trail and meet the newest standards of security and accessibility,” department spokesperson Wanda Murren said in a statement.

If Dauphin County doesn’t buy new machines, and the state follows through on its threat, votes cast there would not be counted, which elections officials there consider unthinkable, especially in a presidential year. Dauphin County has more than 184,000 registered voters.

For context, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Dauphin County in 2016 by a narrow 49.4% to 46.6%, so this is a swing area for 2020, and it would be terrible news for Democrats in particular, and more generally for the voters of Dauphin County who would not have a vote in the Presidential or downballot elections next year.

SB421, the election reform bill that just passed in Harrisburg, contains $90 million for counties to buy new voting machines, so it's at least possible that funding could end the stand-off, but even in that scenario, time is starting to run out to even order them. As Jonathan Lai points out, Pennsylvania's primary election is just five and a half months from now, and it takes a long time to select the machines and train poll workers and voters to use them.

The Wolf administration is signaling that they won't back down, but the longer this drags on and the rollout of the new machines becomes less and less practice, the more likely it seems that there will need to be a temporary certification of the results from the 30-year-old machines. 

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