Exclusive: Philadelphia’s new voting machines under scrutiny in Tuesday’s elections

Exclusive: Philadelphia’s new voting machines under scrutiny in Tuesday’s elections

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When Pennsylvania holds primary elections on Tuesday, some election security advocates will be watching closely to see if more than 2,000 new voting machines acquired last year by Philadelphia and two other counties perform without glitches.

FILE PHOTO: A voter looks at the paper trail created by a new Election Systems & Software ExpressVote XL voting machine, an electronic voting system with a backup paper trail, during a practice demonstration in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 5, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Philadelphia and Northampton counties first used the new “ExpressVote XL” machines in last November’s local elections and will deploy them again in the presidential nominating contests and local races on Tuesday. A third county, Cumberland, will use the machines for the first time.

Their first widespread use in 2019 in Pennsylvania was marred by miscounted vote tallies in Northampton, a politically divided county in eastern Pennsylvania. Some ExpressVote XL machines incorrectly recorded votes for several candidates in the November election, prompting the county to count backup paper receipts to identify the correct winners, according to Maudeania Hornik, chair of the Northampton Election Commission.

The manufacturer of the ExpressVote XL equipment said in a December press conference that some of Northampton’s 320 machines “were configured improperly at our factory prior to delivery to Northampton County.” The manufacturer told the county as many as 30% of the machines were affected, Hornik said.

Problems with at least 366 ExpressVote XL machines also arose in Philadelphia, according to public records exclusively obtained by Reuters. The city last year replaced its old voting equipment with a new fleet of 3,750 ExpressVote XL machines. Reuters could not ascertain how many of those machines were deployed in the November 2019 election there.

Philadelphia is home to 20% of registered Democrats in Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground state that could determine who wins the presidency in November.

Poll workers and technicians reported issues with the new machines at more than 40% of polling locations in Philadelphia during last November’s election, according to the records reviewed by Reuters. Problems included touchscreens that were hypersensitive or that froze; paper voting receipts getting jammed in the machines; and panels opening on some machines to expose the equipment’s electronic controls, the records show.

Katina Granger, a spokeswoman for the ExpressVote XL’s manufacturer, ES&S, said the company was “wholly confident” in the machines, and that it was “simply inaccurate” for anyone to imply there were widespread issues with the ExpressVote XL.

The machines face a big test on Tuesday. After Pennsylvania postponed its 2020 primary originally scheduled for April due to COVID-19 pandemic fears, Philadelphia reduced its in-person polling sites to 190 locations, down from more than 800 that would typically be operating. Those sites are more concentrated in neighborhoods dominated by low-income and minority voters, U.S. Census data show. Pennsylvania allows residents to vote by mail for any reason, but just 20% of Philadelphia’s electorate requested absentee ballots for the June 2 contest.

(For a graphic showing voting disparity in Philadelphia, see: tmsnrt.rs/2XOmdoS)

Philadelphia, Northampton and Cumberland, in central Pennsylvania, have yet to announce if the machines will also be used in November’s presidential race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. Counties typically avoid switching voting systems in major election years.

Reuters reviewed records of 605 phone calls from Philadelphia poll workers who reported problems with the ExpressVote XL machines last November to an Election Day technical help line run by the city. Reuters also spoke with 13 poll workers and voters who said they experienced some of those issues firsthand.

Reuters received copies of the call records — known as “trouble cards” — from four Philadelphia voters, two of whom are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding Pennsylvania end use of the machines. The case, which was brought by two nonpartisan election integrity groups and several voters, is currently pending in a Pennsylvania state court.

Philadelphia Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio made the records available to the voters in accordance with a law that allows Pennsylvania voters to view and copy such information.

When asked for comment about the trouble cards, Custodio said there were fewer and less serious calls about the ExpressVote XL machines in November 2019 than there had been about the city’s previous machines in past elections. Custodio did not address the number of trouble cards, or provide comparable totals of trouble cards from previous elections.

In an email to Reuters, he called the city’s experience with the new voting equipment “overwhelmingly positive,” and also said the news agency had engaged in “bias (sic) fact gathering” by obtaining copies of some records from the two voters who are plaintiffs in the state lawsuit. Reuters requested the records under Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law. Philadelphia’s deputy solicitor turned down that request, citing a state law that said the records “may be inspected and copied by any qualified elector of the county,” meaning Pennsylvania voters. Reuters then asked some voters to copy and share them with the news agency, four of whom did so.

Matthew Lilly, president of a company that serviced the old voting machines in Philadelphia that were replaced by the ExpressVote XLs, disputed Custodio’s assertion that previous elections generated more machine issues. Lilly said that in his two decades working with the city, he did not recall any election that resulted in more than 500 trouble cards.

Reuters could not independently confirm how many trouble cards Philadelphia’s voting machines typically generated in previous elections.

ES&S spokeswoman Granger said “additional quality control and training have been instituted” for the Pennsylvania machines since November.

Based in Omaha, Nebraska, ES&S is one of the largest election-machine manufacturers in the United States. The company released the ExpressVote XL in 2018. The machine was a successor to its earlier ExpressVote model that is used by 1,838 counties around the country.

When voting on an ExpressVote XL machine, voters insert a blank page into the machine and make their choices by tapping an interactive screen. The machine then prints a receipt for voters to review, with their choices listed both in human-readable text along with an accompanying barcode that represents each candidate they selected. The machine uses the barcodes to tabulate results.

Even before last November, some election security experts in Pennsylvania raised concerns that ExpressVote XL machines are vulnerable to vote tampering, in part because voters have no way of knowing if those barcodes accurately reflect the candidates for whom they voted. Separate from the state suit, a different group of voter advocates filed a federal suit to stop Pennsylvania from using the machines over similar concerns.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania dismissed that suit in April, saying plaintiffs had not proven the machines were recording votes incorrectly or were vulnerable to being hacked.

Marian Schneider, who served as Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for Elections and Administration from February 2015 until May 2017, said that “hiccups” could be expected with the rollout of any new voting system.

“But this number of trouble cards recorded in a low-turnout election year (2019) is concerning,” said Schneider, who is currently president of Verified Voting, a secure voting technology advocacy group. Schneider is not part of litigation involving the ExpressVote XL machines.

West Philadelphia voter Susie Mizelle told Reuters she was shocked last November to see a panel on top of her ExpressVote XL open, with a USB drive and a power button visible. Mizelle, 44, asked precinct captain Thelma Peake why the machine’s internal system was accessible to voters. Peake told her the panels on the machines kept “popping open,” according to both women.

Peake said she eventually got the panel closed, but it remained “easy to tamper with.”

ExpressVote XL machines only accept “certified and approved USB flash drives containing encrypted data,” according to ES&S, making it impossible for other devices to “change the election definition or system firmware.”

Three of six counties in New Jersey and Delaware that also use ExpressVote XL machines said they had not experienced any problems with them. Combined, they have used 700 machines so far.

    “There were no issues relative to tabulating the votes, or how voters marked their votes,” said Nicole DiRado, the elections board administrator of Union County, New Jersey, which has deployed 432 machines in local elections so far.

    The other three counties did not respond to requests for comment.

‘ANOTHER CHANCE’

In Philadelphia, at least 1,703 ExpressVote XL machines will be deployed in Tuesday’s election, the city elections board said.

Philadelphia residents who show up in person to vote on June 2 will likely be “older, blacker, and poorer,” said Pennsylvania State Representative Chris Rabb, who also runs Philadelphia’s ninth ward Democratic committee.

Rabb, who last year asked Pennsylvania to investigate concerns that ExpressVote XL machines were not secure, said he was “deeply concerned” that those voters will have to crowd into fewer polling places and use the machines on Tuesday.

Northampton County will deploy 315 machines. It is one of the most competitive counties in America’s presidential battleground states, places set to play an outsized role in November. Cumberland County will operate 384 ExpressVote XL machines.

The three counties are home to 17% of the state’s registered voters and nearly a quarter of its registered Democrats. Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by less than a percentage point in Pennsylvania in 2016, a narrow victory that helped propel him to the White House.

More than one third of the 605 trouble cards from Philadelphia’s 2019 election showed the ExpressVote XL machines were unusable for some period of time during the voting.

The most frequently reported issues — mentioned in 117 cards — were screen problems, such as screens being too sensitive or not sensitive enough. Two dozen reported security issues, such as panels popping open to reveal software installation areas of the machines.

One in five trouble cards reviewed by Reuters said the city help line had not resolved the issue that prompted the call. 

Custodio said in an email that the machines underwent testing before the 2019 election to ensure accuracy, and that the “vast vast majority” of issues with them were solved by phone.

Amanda Feifer, who oversaw Election Day staffing and logistics in a South Philadelphia ward last November, cited issues with touchscreens not highlighting the choices voters tapped. She said it took voters longer to vote than usual, leading to long lines that some voters walked away from.

“Nobody could tell me a story that would convince me that (the machines) were okay, because I witnessed it firsthand,” Feifer said.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Custodio said more than 86% of election judges, the officials who supervise polling places, reported that wait times at their sites were less than 20 minutes, according to a post-election survey conducted by the city. He did not share the survey with Reuters.

Northampton election commission chief Hornik said she was the “Number One supporter” of the ExpressVote XL machines when the county procured them for $2.88 million in 2019.

Her county’s experience last year now has left her fearful about potential, possibly undetectable errors that could affect results. However, the county has not allocated funds to invest in a new voting system, Hornik said, “so we have to give them another chance.”

Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Marla Dickerson

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