Investment in Philadelphia’s voting infrastructure is warranted

The following is a memo written for a graduate public policy course at the University of Pennsylvania taught by Dr. Marc Meredith. 

An Overview of the Problem

In early 2015, Philadelphia’s then Chief Innovation Officer Adel Abeid testified to City Council that the city’s voting machines were old and failing, but since then the city has made no improvements. This problem must be resolved, and quickly.

When these vital pieces of technology are not kept up-to-date, they can be subject to fraud, hacking and vote tallying errors. However, even the best machines that the Philadelphia government has the authority to purchase can be subject to similar issues, and Mayor Jim Kenney along with City Council should examine better alternatives.

Philadelphia’s Voting Machines Need an Upgrade

In March 2015, Mayor Michael Nutter proposed a $22 million dollar allocation for the fiscal year 2017 budget to the City Commissioner’s office to replace the 3,746 voting machines that the office owns.  However, in May 2015, the City Council denied this request. City Council President Darrell Clarke argued that the funds should instead be devoted to infrastructure improvements for the 22nd District Police Station. He said, “(The officers) not having an opportunity that should be befitting of our first responders needs to be responded to in reasonable way, as opposed to acquiring $22 million worth of voting machines.” Clarke said that when most of the machines were under 10 years old, there was no need to replace them.

Most of Philadelphia's voting machines were purchased about 10 years ago.
Most of Philadelphia’s voting machines were purchased about 10 years ago.

However, that was in 2015. Provided that the machines do not get replaced until 2019– as that is now the earliest possible timeframe –  many of them can be estimated to be that old, if not older, as per Adel Abeid’s earlier mentioned testimony. In addition, the money is going to be allocated to the machines in 2019, but there is not a measure to make sure that can actually be adequately replaced during that year. The Brennan Center for Justice notes that voting machines reach the end of their lifespan at 10 years and that “old voting equipment increases the risk of failures and crashes — which can lead to long lines and lost votes on Election Day”.

Mayor Kenney Proposes a Change

This year, the City Council has an opportunity. Mayor Kenney’s proposed budget for fiscal years 2017 to 2022 notes that, “[o]n occasion the City will budget additional funds for special municipal projects such as the replacement of voting machines (proposed for FY2019) and these costs will be absorbed under the Finance budget line”. This proposal is gaining traction precisely because it was not passed last year; putting off improvements again will not be regarded well by the public. In fact, this proposal includes precisely the same allotment that city council rejected in 2015 – $22 million dollars. The goals of this proposal are to purchase new voting machines for use in city and county elections, for which Philadelphia’s City Commissioners are responsible. If City Council approves this budget allocation, Philadelphia will be a more transparent, safe and democratic place to engage with the government.

Technology Isn’t a Problem, Until Suddenly It Is

Investing in infrastructure, and in particular technology infrastructure, is not a politically salient topic in Philadelphia. Until residents experience an issue at the polls related to voting machines – long wait times, slow loading screens, needing the machine to be re-booted in between uses – the citizenry will not feel the need to push for reform. Nevertheless, numerous entities are affected by this problem and should be more concerned about voter technology, as it lays the foundation for our democracy. Stakeholders of this policy change include residents of Philadelphia, potential candidates who are looking to run for office, the City Council, Mayor Kenney, and the City Commissioners’ office.

Encouraging Civic Participation

However, each of these individuals might define and prioritie this problem in differing ways. As mentioned earlier, City Council President Clarke choose to prioritize re-vamping a police station. Residents also might not choose to spend taxpayer money on this particular issue, until problems arise. Even then, voter apathy could cause people to become disenchanted with the entire system and choose not to participate in the civic process at all. If this proposal is not passed, residents in Philadelphia could ultimately suffer if problems with the current technology arise. Conversely, all other city departments do lose out on a potential $22 million allotment; budgeting is a zero sum game, after all.

While departments and individual citizens can in fact have a place in the budget hearing process, ultimately, it will be the decision of the City Council whether or not to fund the new machines. In order for Council to take action on this expensive proposal – as often happens with technology improvements – I believe that first a major issue needs to arise. This is unfortunate as Philadelphia is a major political player in the general election in December 2016. Issues with voting could not only disenfranchise voters, but if people have a difficult time at the polls once, they might not return. Mic reports that millennials and minority populations already face large obstacles at the polls – including voter ID laws and long wait times. A seamless experience with the voting machines could help create a better base of these populations for elections in the future.

The Time to Act

Technology improvements aren’t a provocative topic to many residents, but this is the time to make a change for the better in Philadelphia. With the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and the upcoming presidential election, the city is under a spotlight. Unfortunately, the city has gained attention for its voting mechanisms for a few other ways too, which impact the need for improvements. Last year, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams arrested four election officials for fraud for tampering with voting machines in the 18th ward. In addition, many voting machines lack the proper encryption needed to protect voter data. Though Pennsylvania stopped using the brand of machine years ago, the brand AVS WinVote has been found to be open to hacking, tampering and fraud. Checking up on our current technology and making security improvements as needed is a step in the right direction, but our outdated machines could also be open to this type of devastating attack.

3,746 Machines: Do They Have to be Replaced?

Though the City Council is not examining any other proposals at this point, they do have the authority to adapt the Mayor’s proposed budget. For example, they could fund half of the city’s machines and decide to keep the remaining number. They could recommend a specific piece of technology. Or, the body could look at other policy options being examined around the nation – voting by mail or open source voting, which is in the process of being implemented in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the city is limited to purchasing technologies approved by the Pennsylvania State Election Code and thus might not be able to consider newer technologies. The Brennan Center for Justice recommends a few ways that the federal government can step in to improve voter technologies across the United States. Creating a national clearinghouse of voting machine problems can help poll workers solve problems quickly and without IT support. In addition, funding the federal Election Assistance Commission can help fund and solve voting machine problems on the national level, alleviating some of Philadelphia’s hefty financial burden.

busybooth_iphone (1)
The Open Source Elections Technology Foundation (OSET) has proposed a system of open source voting, which “supports all aspects of elections administration and voting” and is freely available online.

 

While there are no other specific competing policy proposals that accomplish similar goals, it should be noted that the office of the City Commissioner is under severe scrutiny. Notice that in 2015, Mayor Nutter recommended that the $22 million be allocated to the City Commissioner, while Mayor Kenney recommended that it go directly under the purview of the Finance Director. The Philadelphia Citizen along with the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog in Philadelphia, started an online petition to dissolve the City Commissioner’s office, asserting (among other things) the corrupt nature of the office.

Will City Council Approve this Measure?

Ultimately, I do believe that the City Council will approve Mayor Kenney’s proposal to devote $22 million to replace the city’s voting machines in FY19. As previously noted, Council President Darrell Clarke voted against this proposal last year along with a majority of the council body. However, with the turnover in November and the addition of five freshman councilmembers, change is possible. While the priorities of the other councilmembers have not changed, a mayoral turnover and a better council-mayor relationship could affect the outcome of this proposal. Furthermore, the upcoming elections, national spotlight on Philadelphia and the fact that the longer the amount of time passes between the replacement of technology, the likelier that the councilmembers will see how much this improvement is needed. If it is passed, the Finance Director along with the Office of Innovation and Technology will implement this change. These departments have the incentive to implement the voter technology on time due to the aging nature of the current voting machines and because they wish to remain in City Council’s good graces should they want funding for another project in the future.

Philadelphia’s voting technology infrastructure is essential to building an involved electorate. In general, technology improvements are extremely expensive, particularly when improvements cannot be seen by the average resident. But as IT professionals often say, “If you can’t tell that there’s been a change, we’re doing it right.” Right now, Philadelphia needs to do it right and pass the Mayor’s budget proposal.

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