Lycoming County part of election system talks

Elections are about choosing among a variety of candidates with different views on important issues.

But there is one item that unites Republicans and Democrats alike: making sure voting is fair, accurate, accessible and secure.

Over the last year, a bipartisan chorus of state and local leaders has come to the consensus that Pennsylvania needs to do more to help counties like buy new, modern and secure voting machines and reform our election process.

Lycoming County has become central to those discussions.

State Rep. Garth Everett, a Lycoming County Republican who now presides over the House State Government Committee, which will oversee any election reforms proposals, and Forrest Lehman, director of Lycoming County Voter Services, played a role in shaping a legislative package recently unveiled by the state Senate to update election laws.

Expect them to be busy.

Pennsylvania is now seeing more activity on legitimate election reform issues than it has in years, and that momentum is carrying over into the 2019-20 legislative session.

Gov. Tom Wolf has made election a security a priority and his administration has been pushing to replace aging and vulnerable electronic voting machines that in many cases are almost 20 years old and at the end of their useful life.

Right now, 83 percent of Pennsylvanians are voting on vulnerable machines, including paperless Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting systems, which do not leave a reliable paper trail that can be audited to confirm outcomes.

The Department of State issued a directive last February for counties, when replacing their electronic voting systems, to buy machines that leave a paper trail to ensure accuracy and safeguard against hacking.

The new systems are supposed to be in place no later than by the 2020 General Election. At least four new machines have already been certified for use.

It is not without challenges. Election directors need time to get equipment in place, test it and train poll workers before the next major election.

But the biggest challenge is funding. The total cost to replace voting systems statewide is estimated to be as much as $150 million.

The administration pledged to pay for half but the governor’s proposed budget includes only $15 million in the coming fiscal year. The goal is $75 million over five years, which makes it difficult for counties finance upgrades and test systems before the 2020 elections.

Simply put: Counties need additional resources to make the switch-over.

While the administration is working to develop financing options to help, the General Assembly has the opportunity to take a leadership position and allocate more money to help local election directors and county leaders. Election security is too important.

But buying new machines isn’t enough to fully modernize Pennsylvania elections.

We need to update our election system, including changing the way people vote.

Among the proposals being floated by the legislature is a change that would make the use of absentee ballots less restrictive to allow voters to vote early and by mail.

There’s no reason every voter should have to vote on one specific day.

Voting by mail would offer eligible citizens another way to cast their ballots.

Not only would it make voting more accessible for those with physical challenges, but it also would relieve pressures on Election Day for voters and poll workers alike.

Twenty-seven other states and the District of Columbia already offer “no excuse” absentee ballots, and 30 states and D.C. already offer citizens the option to vote by mail.

Other proven election reforms – implementation of electronic poll books, early voting, same-day voter registration, pre-registration for youth, and more – have been tried and tested in other states, garnering broad support from Republicans and Democrats alike. But so far, they haven’t been implemented here.

That needs to change.

If the early days of this new legislative session are proof, change is coming.

The House and Senate have promised hearings on these proposals and more. It’s important that voters have their voices heard.

The reality is that Pennsylvania’s “modern” election system is governed by an election code that hasn’t been updated in more than 60 years, and it’s dominated by aging machines that are prone to malfunction or failure or vulnerable to interference.

Pennsylvania voters deserve better.

Murphy is the state coordinator for Keystone Votes, a nonpartisan coalition comprising 40 advocacy and community organizations working to update Pennsylvania’s election system.