By this November, Philadelphia’s big electronic voting machines will be just a memory, if Governor Wolf and the Department of State have their way. They have given the City Commissioners a directive to put a paper ballot voting system in place, preferably in time for use in 2019.

That’s very good news. Because the old machines don’t record votes on paper, voters can’t tell if their votes were cast correctly, and the results can’t be recounted or checked for errors.

But citizens’ groups such as Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, Citizens for Better Elections, and the League of Women Voters have become justifiably concerned that the process to choose a new system is taking place with too little public involvement or oversight.

The city set a deadline of February 13 — less than a month from now — to choose a voting system from one of several vendors. Although this is a consequential and costly decision, the Commissioners invited the public to only two hearings, announced with little fanfare and only three days’ notice. What we learned at those hearings was not encouraging.

Requirements for a new system have been set out in federal guidelines and state directives.

  • Every ballot must be marked on paper, either by hand or by machine, so that voters have the opportunity to verify that their votes are what they intended. 
  • Every polling place must have at least one ballot-marking device (BMD), a touchscreen computer with accessibility devices designed for voters who may need them.

Beyond those requirements, there’s a choice between two types of systems: those that offer only BMDs and those that let voters choose either hand-marked ballots or a BMD. Hand-marked ballots offer many advantages: increased voter confidence, more reliable capture of voter intent, shorter lines because many people can vote at once, resilience in the face of technical problems and power outages, and lower costs. It is the preferred choice of election security experts and the overwhelming majority of those who attended the hearings.

But this smart, safe, and frugal solution doesn’t seem to be the way the Commissioners want to go. In the hearings on January 10 and 12, the Commissioners indicated their strong preference for a full-face voting system that displays the entire ballot at once, as our current machines do. Since there’s only one system like that on the market, the ES&S ExpressVote XL, it appears there’s a thumb on the scale for a preferred vendor’s most expensive product. If the ExpressVote XL were the best choice for Philadelphia, this would be less troubling. But compared to other options, this all-BMD system is the worst choice. Here’s why:

  • The XL’s name is well earned. It’s about three times bigger than other BMDs — even bigger than the old machines. That will raise storage costs and cause crowding at smaller polling locations. 
  • Each machine both prints the ballots and counts the votes, increasing vulnerability to malware. It also deposits the ballots in order in its own box, weakening ballot secrecy.
  • The ballots are printed in a small font, hard to verify because the choices are only summarized, and can only be viewed through a window next to the screen. 
  • For that and other reasons, under state examination, the machine’s accessibility features earned withering criticism

On top of all that, the XL comes with an an extra-large price: over $7,000 each. Replacing 4,000-plus machines would cost at least $15 million more than a hand-mark system would. Even with federal and state support, the $22 million the city has allocated won’t come close to paying for it.

The City Commissioners have been handed an enormous task — and a short timeline. But that’s no reason to rush into a decision we may regret. I hope my fellow Philadelphians will point out to the commissioners that taxpayer money is at stake, along with the integrity of Philadelphia’s elections for many years to come.

Rich Garella is a resident of Point Breeze, former national coordinator of MoveOn.org’s election integrity campaign, and member of the Election Verification Network.