Wolf: Getting new voting machines is 'right thing'

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - It's the "right thing" for every Pennsylvania county to buy new voting machines in time for the 2020 presidential election to give voters confidence in the balloting, Gov. Tom Wolf said, although he acknowledged that it is a costly proposition.

The governor, a Democrat, told The Associated Press on Friday that one of the biggest challenges his administration faces in the matter is helping counties afford an estimated tab of $125 million.

It is, he said, "a big, big purchase."

With a large number of voting machines that do not create an auditable paper trail, Pennsylvania is viewed as one of the most vulnerable states after federal authorities say Russian hackers targeted it and at least 20 others during the 2016 presidential election.

In April, Wolf gave counties a deadline of 2020 to switch to voting machines that leave a paper trail. His administration has suggested that it could decertify all of the machines in use after 2019's election.

"I think one of the big challenges we have is to make this affordable," Wolf said in an interview in his Capitol office. "It's something that I believe most counties understand. We've got to make sure that voters, when they go to the polls, feel comfortable, that there is a paper trail, that they have some way of making sure that their vote is actually being counted and I think this is important."

Among those calling for states to buy machines with a verifiable and auditable ballot by 2020 is Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Wolf said the federal government should contribute more than the $14 million it has committed and vendors "need to have some skin in the game" by providing financing that allows counties to pay in installments over time.

Wolf has committed to asking lawmakers for state aid to cover at least half of the cost. That proposal will be part of the budget plan he delivers to lawmakers on Feb. 5. He declined to say precisely how much he will seek, or why he won't ask lawmakers to cover the entire cost, minus the federal money.

"I think we have to continue to have a conversation," Wolf said. "But we've laid out the 50 percent just to say, 'OK, here's sort of what we're thinking of.' ... The goal is to make this as painless as possible for the counties, and as easy as possible to do the right thing."

Pennsylvania is one of 13 states where some or all voters use 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 electronic voting machines that lack an auditable paper trail. Wolf's administration wants every voting machine replaced, including machines that scan paper ballots because those systems lack the availability of technical support and don't meet current prevailing standards for accessibility and security, state officials said.

So far, two counties - Susquehanna and Montgomery - have notified the state of plans to buy new machines.

Wolf's administration has asked vendors to propose their best pricing and financing arrangements for the counties, including leasing proposals and pricing for 3-year, 5-year and 8-year purchase plans.

Wolf also has asked Pennsylvania's congressional delegation to push for more federal money.

In August, Republicans in the U.S. Senate, including Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, blocked a proposal for another $250 million, on top of $380 million approved earlier in the year. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey supported the additional money, and said Monday that he would continue to push for more federal aid.