Auditor: Pa. officials took voting machine vendors' freebies

Pennsylvania's elected auditor said Friday that officials in 18 of the state's 67 counties reported accepting gifts, meals or trips from firms competing to sell or lease new voting machines ahead of the 2020 elections.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said accepting the gifts is wrong, even though it's a legal practice and officials may have taken no action in return.

"Anyone who took them, period, could be swayed by the perks," he said. Public officials, he said, should not "accept this nonsense."

The gifts included expense-paid travel to destinations including Las Vegas, tickets to a wine festival and private distillery tour, dinners at high-end restaurants, tickets to an amusement park and an open bar at a conference for elections officials, DePasquale said. A promotional folding chair, doughnuts and candy, were among other gifts.

"I want counties to make their decisions based on the best interests of voters and not on any other factors," DePasquale, a Democrat, said at a news conference announcing the findings.

DePasquale said the free food and drink ranged from lobster dinners to cups of coffee, and said the free entertainment was not reasonably linked to the question of which machines would be best.

"I don't know what a wine tour has to do with the quality of a voting system," he said.

The survey covered the past five years. DePasquale said most of the gift and travel recipients were county elections officials, and a few were county commissioners.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is pressing counties to buy voting machines with voter-auditable paper backups ahead of the 2020 election. Federal authorities said Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states during 2016's presidential election, including Pennsylvania.

The total cost of buying new machines across Pennsylvania is expected to be more than $125 million.

Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said election officials sometimes have contacts with vendors for reasons that are not related to selling them equipment, such as helping to test or evaluate new products.

He said one county had new machines in place last November. Three or four may be using them by the May primary and about half of counties hope theirs will be ready in November, Hill said.

"The bottom line is, we're being as diligent as possible in a high pressure situation to get something in place that is going to work well for the voters, that is going to be easy for the officials to administer, and is going to guarantee the safety and accuracy of casting a ballot," Hill said.

Wolf has imposed a gift ban on the executive branch under his jurisdiction, but such rules do not necessarily apply to counties.

Hill was unsure if any counties have outright gift bans in place but said many do supplement the Ethics Act's reporting requirements with more stringent rules.

DePasquale said he has reason to think that at least some recipients may not have disclosed gifts as required, and is referring those matters to the State Ethics Commission for review.