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Susquehanna County adds new voting machines ahead of state deadline; Somerset County still weighing options

September 23, 2018

Somerset County officials are preparing to meet with voting machine vendors to come into compliance with a new state regulation — a move that will cost more than $1 million.

This week Susquehanna County became the first county in the state to receive new voting machines. All counties are to have new voting systems that provide a paper record and meet current security, auditability and accessibility standards no later than Dec. 31, 2019. State officials said in April that they would prefer the new machines are in place for the November 2019 municipal election.

The county’s current electronic machines do no print a backup paper ballot. They were purchased in 2006, at a cost of $3,400 per machine, with federal grant money. The county has 236 machines.

Somerset County Elections Director Tina Pritts said there are vendors coming in to show officials some of the new machines. She said no decision has been made about what type of machine to purchase. In past interviews some of the commissioners expressed a desire to return to paper ballots.

“We are waiting to see what the vendors have to show us,” she said.

Susquehanna County purchased a Unisyn Voting Solutions OpenElect optical scan system through the Ohio-based vendor ElectionIQ. Currently, it is the only certified machine; however, the state is working to certify additional systems. It is a paper-based digital scan voting device that both validates and tabulates ballots. The county had already been using paper ballots.

“Nothing about the process for the voters is going to change; we are just upgrading and improving our equipment,” Susquehanna County Elections Director SarahRae Sisson said. “A majority of the voters will be voting directly on paper ballots, but we do have ADA compliant machines for persons with disabilities to be able to vote on. Our old ADA machines were not all that user-friendly and it took a long time to use them to mark the ballot. We are hoping that now that we have more user-friendly machines, that more people that need assistance voting will feel comfortable using these machines.”

Pritts said some of the machines under consideration have voters use a terminal to cast their vote and then print a paper ballot they can scan. She said that unlike in 2006, they do not know if any grant funding will be made available to assist with the purchase.

“Regardless, it is going to be over $1 million for our county,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has called on all state and local election officials to make certain that by the 2020 presidential election every American votes on a ballot that can be checked and verified by the voter and that can be audited by election officials. Susquehanna has about 41 polling places, and the upgrade cost the county a little more than $250,000. Sisson said the county has wanted to upgrade the machines and was expecting the expense. The county did not receive any grant funding.

“However, the Department of State does say that monies will come down at some point to help counties cover the costs, but it does not appear that the amount that is provided will cover the whole cost of the new systems,” she said.

She said that although the directive came as a bit of a surprise, she is excited her county was able to implement the new equipment for the November election.

“The commissioners have been 100 percent onboard with this whole process, and it is awesome to finally see it coming together,” she said. “We are doing our acceptance testing (Thursday), logistics and accuracy testing will be in a few weeks and then our poll workers will get trained a few weeks after that. This new system and the software that comes with it is going to help us streamline some election processes, that will not make election night such a long one. It will also eliminate potential for human error and will ensure the accuracy of each and every vote.”

Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk said the commissioners were not available for comment Friday.

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