During the 2018 midterm elections, the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition calculated that 18 Philadelphia-based precincts experienced broken or malfunctioning voting machines. The number of ineffective polling stations strongly emphasized the importance of technological changeover.
In April of the same year, the Pennsylvania Department of State announced that counties must select new voting systems in time for the 2020 primary, if not by the November 2019 general election. The voting machines must incorporate a paper record to provide more accurate post-election audits.
However, controversy has brewed over the transparency and ethics regarding the selection process of said machines after news broke that the elections director of Luzerne County accepted gifts, including a free trip to Vegas, from its chosen vendor.
The company in question is Election Systems & Software (ES&S), a voting systems manufacturer based in Omaha, Nebraska. It is the same company that Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said to Philadelphia Weekly is also vying to become Philadelphia’s new voting equipment provider.
“I've been on the job for six years, this was eye-opening to me that there are even lobbyists for these things,” said DePasquale.
Philadelphia has six competing bids right now, currently under review by a confidential committee consisting of commissioners from the City Council, Office of the Mayor, Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT), and Office of the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. The committee was preparing for a vote on Feb. 13, but announced in a public statement late Tuesday, Feb. 12, evening that it would be delayed. The City Commissioners Office stated that the commissioner vote was postponed to allow the City’s Procurement Department more time to negotiate the recommendations made by the selection committee.
Auditor General DePasquale and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart had previously recommended that the commissioners delay the vote to evaluate alternative options and maintain transparency. Nick Custodio, the deputy commissioner for City Commissioner Lisa M. Deeley, stated before the statement that the delay in the vote was not a result of either DePasquale’s or Rhynhart’s public disapproval.
“This week, the selection committee made its recommendations to the Procurement Department for additional negotiations of price and other terms, which is an option available to the selection committee pursuant the Best Value Regulations,” read the public statement. “Accordingly, the Commissioners’ vote is postponed while these additional negotiations take place.”
Others had not been vocal for a delay in voting, citing the review process Philadelphia had already performed.
“Prior to issuing the voting machine contracting opportunity, staff spent several months conducting research in preparation for the issuance of the RFP (Request for Proposals),” Deputy Communications Director of the City of Philadelphia Mike Dunn explained to PW. “This research involved, but was not limited to, a review of federal and state documentation, a survey of requirements from other locales, a State/Federal sponsored security symposium attended by both City Commissioners and OIT staff, observation of elections in other municipalities, and the issuance of a request for information (RFI) in June.”
Dunn went on to say:
“As a result of this due diligence, OIT and the City Commissioners issued an RFP in November 2018 that resulted in multiple proposals. The Selection Committee continues its consideration of those proposals. The Mayor’s Office is hopeful that this extensive effort will meet the Governor’s mandate for the selection of new systems by year’s end and implementation in 2020. This, in turn, will result in new voting technology that meets Philadelphia’s electoral needs for years to come.”
But from Auditor General DePasquale’s reading of the RFP, it seemed to benefit one vendor in particular —Election Systems & Software (ES&S), a voting systems manufacturer based in Omaha, Nebraska.
“I wouldn't want to suggest fraud at this point. I am concerned that the RFP appeared to be written to benefit one vendor, I say appeared, that's why I think having commissioners answerable to more questions is critical,” said DePasquale to PW, clarifying that the stated vendor was ES&S. “I don't think they've been very transparent about the whole thing. This is a very important decision. They've got to make sure that they get this thing right and I'm just not convinced that they've weighed all the options appropriately.”
Custodio explained that all systems certified by the Department of State meet the recommendations by the University of Pittsburgh and The Blue Ribbon Commission On Pennsylvania’s Election Security study, including that they use “voter-marked paper ballots (either by hand or by machine).” Custodio went onto say that the RFP included only one certified system, Unisyn, in its release.
“The RFP was written and released at a time when there was only one certified system, a system by a vendor named Unisyn. There was no real guarantee anything else would be certified by February 13th,” said Custodio. “One system didn't complete their federal certification until January 30th and others have still yet to be certified. Several additional systems that we saw during our RFI phase, which was used to inform the writing of the RFP, have not been certified.”
DePasquale attempted to create more transparency in the selection procedures when he issued a list of six questions to every county election last month with a Feb. 8 deadline. Nine counties missed the deadline, Philadelphia being one of them.
“Philadelphia has hundreds of thousands of voters. This system has to work and has to work well to make sure every eligible voter who casts a vote gets counted properly on Election Day,” DePasquale continued. “Who the next president of the United States may very well depend on this system working properly.”
DePasquale explained that Philadelphia’s election office, headed by Acting Supervisor of Elections Kevin Kelly, did get back to him with some information on Feb. 11, the same day the auditor general sent a press release about the missed deadlines. The provided information from Philadelphia County is now under review.
[2/12/19 - This article has been updated to reflect the City Commissioners Office announcement late Tuesday evening, Feb. 12, that they would be postponing the vote on the new election system].