(TNS) — Blue bags filled with completed ballots sitting on a courthouse floor waiting to be counted. Folded absentee ballots getting kicked out of scanners unable to be read. Polling places where long lines of voters stood with ballots in hand waiting their turn at an optical scanner that will cast their votes. Ballots printed on the wrong size paper.
Those were some of the difficulties that arose in some Pennsylvania counties that implemented new paper ballot voting systems for the first time in Tuesday’s general election.
Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the new voting systems to be put in place before next year’s presidential primary. That order came in the wake of the discovery of hacking attempts of voting machines in the 2016 presidential primary as well as to comply with a settlement of a lawsuit over the old machines’ vulnerabilities.
Complications arose with the new systems in such places as York, Northampton and Mercer counties as well as issues of a gas leak in one precinct and power outages in a few others, state officials said.
But overall, Acting Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said the transition to the new voting systems encountered went well.
“We are very pleased to report that the election was carried out statewide with little incident,” Boockvar said in a statement issued after the polls closed on Tuesday. “That’s especially impressive given that 45 counties were using new voting systems.”
But a Pennsylvania Republican Party official called that description of Election Day “disingenuous at best.”
GOP deputy executive director Charlie O’Neill pointed out the problems in Fairview Township polling places alone raised enough question over whether ballots would be counted to nearly trigger the party to file a legal action against York County. He said voters there were observed placing ballots in a bag rather than waiting in line to insert them in the optical scanner.
But that legal action was avoided when the Pennsylvania Republican Party and York County officials reached an agreement that was filed in York County Court on Wednesday. The agreement outlined procedures for counting ballots in those two precincts that were not scanned at the polling place, according to a statement from the Department of State.
York County spokesman Mark Walters said the agreement essentially required the county to follow the same procedures it would have followed even if the Republican Party didn’t threaten legal action. He told reporters following Wednesday’s county commissioners meeting, “this was completely grandstanding – 100% political posturing to make a point and shove it in the governor’s face.”
In the department’s statement, it said York County officials partially attributed the problems to having an insufficient number of scanners and also to a ballot printing error that affected a handful of precincts in the county.
Walters said along with other remedies being considered, the county is looking to buy additional scanners to the 180 it already purchased at $4,900 each. He said one scanner was deployed at each of the 159 polling places on Tuesday, which wasn’t sufficient. As further proof, he said election officials were still counting votes for York City and southern York County precincts late Wednesday afternoon due to the backlog in casting ballots that occurred at polling places.
The state Republican party received more than 50 complaints on Tuesday from voters in several counties about their experience with new voting systems and concerns about whether votes would be counted, O’Neill said.
That included Northampton County, where bags of uncounted paper ballots sat on the courthouse floor waiting to be tabulated after the state ordered the county to count paper ballots rather than rely on machine totals. That task was finally completed by early Wednesday morning, a county official there said.
State election officials said they are working with Northampton County and its voting system vendor ES&S to identify and remedy the underlying cause of an election returns reporting issue. More than 20 counties around the state purchased the same voting systems used in Northampton, according to information provided by the state department.
Over in Mercer County, Jeff Greenburg, that county’s director of elections & voter registration, told PA Post on Tuesday there were some problems with a different ES&S system scanning “folded absentee ballots” after polls closed, leaving as many as several dozen to be counted on Wednesday at its courthouse.
O’Neill called all of these issues a travesty.
“It is our hope that the 2020 experience isn’t going to face these issues,” O’Neill said.
State election officials said in their statement that the situations that arose on Tuesday underscore the importance of moving to all paper-record voting systems, which allow for post-election audits and recounts using records that voters verify themselves.
Further, they said they will continue to work with counties and reinforce the need to have the appropriate amount of voting equipment on hand at polling places and expanded poll worker training as they look toward next year’s presidential election year. Additionally, they will focus efforts on educating voters about the new systems.
Nonetheless, the GOP’s O’Neill lays the blame for the difficulties and confusion that voters encountered on Tuesday at Wolf’s doorstep.
“The governor decertified all these machines himself and then did nothing [immediately] ensuring they were going to be replaced with something that was going to be funded, that was going to be functional,” O’Neill said.
Last week, Wolf signed into law a measure that authorizes the state to borrow $90 million to help counties pay for the new voting systems. Earlier, the state received $14.1 million in federal aid that the governor chose to direct to counties to pay for voting machine replacement.
Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said that combined funding supports the majority of the cost that counties will bear in replacing their voting machines. Moreover, he affirmed Boockvar’s assessment that the problems experienced with the new voting technology was isolated to only a few counties.
“There is strong bipartisan support for securing our elections,” Abbott said. “These new and more secure voting machines help prevent vote manipulation by bad actors. But they do also require voters and election workers to adjust and become comfortable with the change.”
Montgomery County voters on Tuesday had their second experience with their new voting system – the same one York County purchased – after using it for the first time in the spring.
Lee Soltysiak, Montgomery County’s chief operating officer and clerk of its election board, said the second go-round went far more smoothly than the first. Montgomery County officials put 13 additional scanners into use at polling places to scan completed paper ballots, changed how polling places were set up, and provided some additional poll worker training.
“There are learning curves and growing pains. Change can be hard,” he said. “I guess others are finding that out too.”
He said county officials there reached out proactively to poll workers and voters to hear about their concerns with the voting experience after the primary to try to rectify the problems.
“We were open to what we heard and most of it was very productive,” Soltysiak said. “We implemented what we could and as fast as we could for this general election. I think it paid off.”
©2019 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.