Centre will replace county voting machines

BELLEFONTE — Although Election Day 2018 is in the rear-view mirror and everything went smoothly, sweeping changes are coming to future elections in Centre County.

At the Centre County commissioners’ weekly meeting Tuesday, it was revealed that the method in which the county votes is being de-certified by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And it appears that’s the case in every county in the state.

It means the county’s machines will need to be replaced prior to Election Day 2019. With that in mind, the commissioners agreed unanimously to submit an application for an HAVA Election Security Grant in the amount of $180,027.

That money is just a slice of the pie being distributed throughout the state, according to county administrator Margaret Gray.

“Earlier this year, the federal government appropriated funds to the states known as the 2018 HAVA Election Security Grant. The purpose of this grant was to improve election systems. The Pennsylvania Department of State has implemented a funding formula that’s based on total voter registration as certified by each county’s Board of Elections,” Gray said.

A total of $14.1 million was allocated by the federal government to be distributed throughout 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

Based on Centre County’s numbers – 111,275 registered voters – the county’s portion is the aforementioned $180,027.

The decision to apply for the grant means that the commissioners are expressing intent to upgrade county voting machines.

“We are not contracting for any machine purchase today,” said commissioner Michael Pipe. “We are literally just saying that we have intent to do so in the future and we are going to accept this money.”

Pipe pointed out that the grant will provide a good foundation to change the machines. However, there will still be a huge expense to the county when the machines are finally changed.

“It’s $180,000, which is a good chunk, but we still have to make up a big part of that as well,” Pipe noted.

Pipe said that the County Commissioners’ Association of Pennsylvania recently agreed that its top priority is election machine funding.

“All 67 counties are going to get behind that and advocate to the governor and General Assembly that they need to close this gap between this $180,000 and the total cost of the machines. This is just a step in the process,” Pipe said.

Commissioner Mark Higgins stressed that the current voting system is fine, but changes have to be made.

“We have a non-hackable, paper-based system in Centre County. We could re-run the election for four, five, six months after the elction and get the same number every time. We’re looking at the same type of systems for this re-fresh; completely paper-based, ability to re-run the elction multiple times until we run out of physical space to store the ballots. I just want to stress that for the citizens. We are going to stay paper-based,” Higgins said.

Commissioner Steve Dershem isn’t thrilled with the prospects of having to change the current system.

However, every county in the Commonwealth is dealing with the same issue, he said.

“The bottom line here is that the governor has de-certified our current system. As much confidence as we have in it, it looks like we’re going to have to replace them. It’s not going to be an inexpensive process to do that … $180,000 is but a fraction of what it’s going to truly cost. As much chagrin as I have over replacing the system, it looks like we’re going to have to do it. We might as well accept the money and make the best of it,” Dershem said.

Centre residents will have an opportunity to have their voices heard at a special town hall meeting to learn about the future of voting systems in Centre County.

The public meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 10, at the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology (CPI) in Pleasant Gap. There will vendor demonstrations and voters will have a chance to test different styles of machines.