Statement on Philadelphia Voting System Controversy
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Statement on Philadelphia Voting System Controversy

September 27, 2019


Contact: Pat Christmas
Committee of Seventy, Policy Director; 919-423-7281 c

Philadelphia, PA – With City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s investigation of Philadelphia’s selection process for new voting systems complete, the controversy wrapped around the chosen system seems primed to continue, as does the leadership vacuum that has persisted throughout.

This all began in April 2018 when Governor Wolf’s administration directed every county in the state to select new, secure voting systems with a ‘voter-verifiable paper record’ by the end of 2019. While there has been no evidence of successful hacking or intrusion in our elections to date, the US Department of Homeland Security now lists American voting systems and equipment as critical infrastructure, and Pennsylvania was one of 21 states with election systems targeted by Russian operatives. The threat is real.  

In Harrisburg, the controversy around voting systems has been intense, with a first round of fighting over whether the Governor’s directive to local county governments was necessary and appropriate. The debate around funding is ongoing this fall. In Philadelphia, controversy has engulfed the selection process, questioning the security and the integrity of the decision makers and the decision process.

City officials contend that the ‘best value’ procurement process used to select the new machines followed the law and regulations. (Seventy supported passage of this ‘best value’ practice in 2017.) But too little public engagement and transparency at the beginning of the process has fueled lingering suspicions of bias at best and corruption at worst. Even within the aggressive timeline mandated by the state, other counties (e.g., Allegheny County) organized voting system demos, online surveys, and other means of collecting feedback from citizens and advocates to inform their decision making.

Similar efforts in Philadelphia would have inspired public confidence in the selection process. But somehow, despite the fact that we are the only County in Pennsylvanian that elects three City Commissioners to run elections, those three people failed to communicate effectively with the citizens about an important decision they knew they were going to have to make.

Why didn’t the City Commissioners get out in front of this issue? 

With incumbent City Commissioners Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt running for re-election, state law prohibits them from performing their duties on the County Board of Elections, preventing a formal response to the ongoing controversy. But neither can reasonably speak out as individual public officials while their names are on the November ballot. Only Commissioner Anthony Clark was in a position to speak out on this issue, but his well-documented attendance problems effectively made him irrelevant as well.

Meanwhile, the Common Pleas Court judges appointed to temporarily fill the County Board of Elections seats vacated by Deeley and Schmidt couldn’t be expected to meaningfully address any of the controversy, nor reconsider, on their own, decisions made before they arrived on the scene. The Mayor and City Council are also not responsible for election oversight and, consequently, cannot easily step in. For such a high-stakes issue dealing with Philadelphians’ ability to cast a ballot, this is a remarkable state of affairs. Who was in charge? Nobody.

We’re left scratching our heads and trying to answer two important questions: Can voters trust the new voting system? And who can make this case to the public?

The answer to the first question is a firm probably. Examined and certified by state and federal officials, the selected machine – ExpressVoteXL – produces a paper ballot that each voter can review before casting and that can be used in a recount. Audits will be run every election to ensure the human-readable portions of these ballots match the tallies saved in the machines. And there are other important variables to consider, from disability and language access to the number of offices and candidates that can be appear in a single election. City officials assuredly considered these issues, but a strong public case has yet to be made for why the chosen system is the best for Philadelphia voters.

Which gets to the second question: Which of our public officials can speak to these issues? Seventy has long supported the consolidation of the Office of the City Commissioners into the rest of city government. Such reform would not only increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the services they provide, but ensure far greater accountability, responsiveness and integrity. We’ll know who’s in charge and who’s accountable.

But until that day comes, we’re stuck with the City Commissioners who take office in January 2020. By most accounts 2020 will be a volatile election season. Voters will need to be confident in our elections and voting equipment. Allowing the current controversy to fester, even in the background, is a risk we can’t afford.

City elections staff have been working hard to coordinate hundreds of machine demonstrations for voters and scores of trainings for poll workers in preparation for the upcoming November 5 election. But it will take a great deal more to address the collateral damage of this past year and rebuild trust. Current and past City Commissioners have rejected Seventy’s assertion that their duties would be better placed elsewhere in City government. We challenge them to enter into office on a mission to prove us wrong.

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