Washington County voters are likely to see an electronic pollbook in use at the county’s 184 precincts for the first time Tuesday, when a computerized database will be replacing a paper registry of voters living within a particular precinct.
What they won’t see is what went on behind the scenes less than two weeks before election day that could have had profound consequences for each candidate on the ballot.
A Pennsylvania Department of State official stopped short of saying that a lack of technology testing could have invalidated Tuesday’s election in Washington County, because election challenges are decided in court, not by the department.
But Oct. 25, Washington County elections officials learned that state-mandated testing for a combination of the e-pollbook, known as Express Poll, an additional device and computer software hadn’t taken place.
“All other features of the e-pollbook will be used, except for the encoding of the voter access card,” said Larry Spahr, Washington County elections director, a day after finding out that his office would have to notify members of local election boards by phone and by placing a memo in the pollbook.
“The state didn’t test it together as an entire system,” Spahr said.
But the testing didn’t take place because the vendor notified Harrisburg rather late in the game, according to Ian Harlow, deputy commissioner, Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, Pennsylvania Department of State.
Harlow said in an interview last week that Oct. 24, he received initial correspondence from ES&S asking if the combination of e-pollbook, cardwriter and Guardian Election Management Systems software to be used for the first time in Washington County was a combination that was certified.
The software, known as GEMS, is used to enter election data, program memory, plot ballots, tally results and produce reports of vote totals.
“Shortly thereafter, I responded it was not certified for use, and I asked ES&S if they wanted to schedule an examination for after the election. They asked if an expedited process was available. This was a little over a week before the election, so it wasn’t possible.
“We work with ES&S often. They understand the time that it takes. We were very surprised at the late request.”
The schedule of testing for computerized election devices typically takes six to eight weeks, from start to finish, if all goes smoothly. The test is videotaped for the public record, and both legal and policy reviews ensue.
“Had the election gone forward with the “burning” of a voter access card to insert into the touchscreen voting machine, it would have been on equipment that was not certified and approved for use by the secretary of the commonwealth, who, under the Election Code, has authority to test and approve all election devices prior to being used in the field,” Harlow said.
“This is something we take very seriously because of the integrity of the electoral process,” and voting on uncertified, unapproved equipment, is something Harlow said has never happened before in Pennsylvania.
Kathy Rogers replied to an email inquiry on behalf of ES&S, noting that the company “has previously certified other versions of our ExpressVote in Pennsylvania. However, due to a slight variation in the tabulation software used by Washington County, a separate state approval was required for this particular jurisdiction. This is a common occurrence given the number of unique software versions that may exist among our customer base.”
“GEMS has not been tested with the e-pollbook and card writer,” Harlow said.
The state has approved the use of the e-pollbook, a printer and signature pad together, Harlow said.
The county could use the e-pollbook just to check in voters and not burn the card.
Election boards will instead use a hand-held encoder in use since 2006 to produce a card that will allow the voter will insert to activate the voting machine.
“That’s absolutely fine,” Harlow said. “The county can proceed in that manner.”