Crunch time nears in Pennsylvania to buy new voting machines

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- It's getting down to crunch time for Pennsylvania's counties to decide which new voting machines to buy, and how, as Gov. Tom Wolf presses them to switch to voting machines that leave a paper trail as a safeguard against hacking.

Wolf's administration told county officials this week the Democratic governor wants the state to cover at least half the cost. The news came as counties assemble fiscal-year budgets and try out machines that are expected to be included in a state purchasing contract being finalized in the coming weeks.

Securing state aid will mean persuading the Republican-controlled Legislature to commit tens of millions of dollars toward what counties estimate will eventually be a $125 million tab.

In a statement, Wolf's administration said it had just begun discussing the matter with top lawmakers and, while it had no firm commitments, it called the initial meetings "very positive."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, took a circumspect view of Wolf's overtures, saying he'll review the proposal and meet with Wolf's top elections official, Robert Torres, to discuss it.

"Once again, the governor is committing the commonwealth to more spending without explaining how he plans to pay for it," Saylor said in a statement.

Without state aid, counties will have to use property taxes to foot the cost, as Wolf pushes counties to get new machines into service before the presidential primary election in 2020.

Pennsylvania is one of 13 states where most or all voters use antiquated machines that store votes electronically without printed ballots or other paper-based backups that could be used to double-check the vote, according to researchers at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

Four in five Pennsylvania voters use machines that lack an auditable paper trail. Pennsylvania is viewed as one of the most vulnerable states after federal authorities say Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states during the 2016 presidential election.

Wolf first gave counties a deadline of 2020 in April.

He is committed to asking lawmakers for state funding to cover at least half of the cost, on top of about $14 million in federal aid already available, according to an email sent Thursday to county officials by Kathy Boockvar, an election adviser to Wolf.

Wolf's administration had just hours earlier settled a lawsuit accusing Pennsylvania of potentially violating the constitutional rights of voters if it continued using voting machines that were susceptible to hacking. In September, U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond had denied the Wolf administration's effort to dismiss the lawsuit's claims.

In the settlement, Wolf's administration formalized its commitment to ensuring every Pennsylvania voter uses a "voter-verifiable paper ballot" in 2020.

Boockvar told county officials that, without the settlement, the judge could have ordered a tighter time frame for counties to switch to the new voting machines.

Counties can buy the machines through a statewide purchasing contract that is expected to be posted by Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, counties are preparing to borrow money to pay for the machines, not knowing whether the state will kick in money, or how much.

In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania's third most-populous county, commissioners are preparing a capital budget with $8 million set aside to replace machines that are more than 20 years old. Philadelphia has approved $22 million in its capital budget for voting machines, a spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney said.

Westmoreland County expects the cost will be $7 million without outside help. County officials aren't sure whether they will buy or lease the machines, but they are hoping the state will underwrite a portion of the cost, said Gina Cerilli, the commission's chairwoman.

Top Democratic lawmakers said they back Wolf and support a substantial state role in paying for the machines to ensure confidence in elections.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the more the state covers, the better, since some counties have less money and forcing counties to pay the bill could delay the implementation for many beyond 2020.

"We ought to do it right," Costa said. "And I think the state ought to be a major partner in terms of getting the best equipment possible."