WASHINGTON—When Pennsylvania holds primary elections on June 2, some election security advocates will be watching closely to see if more than 2,000 new voting machines acquired last year by Philadelphia and two other counties perform without glitches.
Philadelphia and Northampton counties first used the new “ExpressVote XL” machines in last November’s local elections and will deploy them again in the presidential nominating contests and local races. A third county, Cumberland, will use the machines for the first time.
Their first widespread use in 2019 in Pennsylvania was marred by miscounted vote tallies in Northampton, a politically divided county in eastern Pennsylvania. Some ExpressVote XL machines incorrectly recorded votes for several candidates in the November election, prompting the county to count backup paper receipts to identify the correct winners, according to Maudeania Hornik, chair of the Northampton Election Commission.
Some of Northampton’s 320 machines “were configured improperly at our factory prior to delivery to Northampton County,” the maker of the ExpressVote XL equipment said during a December press conference. The manufacturer told the county as many as 30 percent of the machines were affected, Hornik said.
Problems with at least 366 ExpressVote XL machines also arose in Philadelphia, according to public records exclusively obtained by Reuters. The city last year replaced its old voting equipment with a new fleet of 3,750 ExpressVote XL machines. Reuters couldn’t ascertain how many of those machines were deployed in the November 2019 election there.
Philadelphia is home to 20 percent of registered Democrats in Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground state that could determine who wins the presidency in November.
Poll workers and technicians reported issues with the new machines at more than 40 percent of polling locations in Philadelphia during last November’s election, according to the records reviewed by Reuters. Problems included touchscreens that were hypersensitive or that froze; paper voting receipts getting jammed in the machines; and panels opening on some machines to expose the equipment’s electronic controls, the records show.
Katina Granger, a spokeswoman for the ExpressVote XL’s manufacturer, ES&S, said the company was “wholly confident” in the machines, and that it was “simply inaccurate” for anyone to imply there were widespread issues with the ExpressVote XL.
The machines face a big test. After Pennsylvania postponed its 2020 primary, originally scheduled for April due to COVID-19 pandemic fears, Philadelphia reduced its in-person polling sites to 190 locations, down from more than 800 that would typically be operating. Those sites are more concentrated in neighborhoods dominated by low-income and minority voters, U.S. Census data show. Pennsylvania allows residents to vote by mail for any reason, but just 20 percent of Philadelphia’s electorate requested absentee ballots for the contest.
Philadelphia, Northampton, and Cumberland, in central Pennsylvania, have yet to announce if the machines will also be used in November’s presidential election. Counties typically avoid switching voting systems in major election years.
Reuters reviewed records of 605 phone calls from Philadelphia poll workers who reported problems with the ExpressVote XL machines last November to an Election Day technical helpline run by the city. Reuters also spoke with 13 poll workers and voters who said they experienced some of those issues firsthand.
Reuters received copies of the call records—known as “trouble cards”—from four Philadelphia voters, two of whom are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding Pennsylvania halt the use of the machines. The case, which was brought by two nonpartisan election integrity groups and several voters, is currently pending in a Pennsylvania state court.
Philadelphia Deputy City Commissioner Nick Custodio made the records available to voters in accordance with a law that allows Pennsylvania voters to view and copy such information.
When asked for comment about the trouble cards, Custodio said there were fewer and less serious calls about the ExpressVote XL machines in November 2019 than there had been about the city’s previous machines in past elections. Custodio didn’t address the number of trouble cards, or provide comparable totals of trouble cards from previous elections.
In an email to Reuters, he called the city’s experience with the new voting equipment “overwhelmingly positive,” and also said the news agency had engaged in “bias (sic) fact-gathering” by obtaining copies of some records from the two voters who are plaintiffs in the state lawsuit. Reuters requested the records under Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law.
Philadelphia’s deputy solicitor turned down that request, citing a state law that said the records “may be inspected and copied by any qualified elector of the county,” meaning Pennsylvania voters. Reuters then asked some voters to copy and share them with the news agency, four of whom did so.
Matthew Lilly, president of a company that serviced the old machines in Philadelphia that were replaced by the ExpressVote XLs, disputed Custodio’s assertion that previous elections generated more machine issues. Lilly said that in his two decades working with the city, he didn’t recall any election that resulted in more than 500 trouble cards.
Reuters couldn’t independently confirm how many trouble cards Philadelphia’s voting machines typically generated in previous elections.
ES&S spokeswoman Granger said “additional quality control and training have been instituted” for the Pennsylvania machines since November.
Based in Omaha, Nebraska, ES&S is one of the largest election-machine manufacturers in the United States. The company released the ExpressVote XL in 2018. The machine was a successor to its earlier ExpressVote model that is used by 1,838 counties around the country.
When voting on an ExpressVote XL machine, voters insert a blank page into the machine and make their choices by tapping an interactive screen. The machine then prints a receipt for voters to review, with their choices listed both in human-readable text along with an accompanying barcode that represents each candidate they selected. The machine uses the barcodes to tabulate results.
Even before last November, some election security experts in Pennsylvania raised concerns that ExpressVote XL machines are vulnerable to vote tampering, in part because voters have no way of knowing if those barcodes accurately reflect the candidates for whom they voted. Separate from the state suit, a different group of voter advocates filed a federal suit to stop Pennsylvania from using the machines over similar concerns.
A federal judge in Pennsylvania dismissed that suit in April, saying plaintiffs had not proven the machines were recording votes incorrectly or were vulnerable to being hacked.
Marian Schneider, who served as Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for elections and administration from February 2015 until May 2017, said that “hiccups” could be expected with the rollout of any new voting system.
“But this number of trouble cards recorded in a low-turnout election year (2019) is concerning,” said Schneider, who is currently president of Verified Voting, a secure voting technology advocacy group. Schneider isn’t part of litigation involving the ExpressVote XL machines.
West Philadelphia voter Susie Mizelle told Reuters she was shocked last November to see a panel on top of her ExpressVote XL open, with a USB drive and a power button visible. Mizelle, 44, asked precinct captain Thelma Peake why the machine’s internal system was accessible to voters. Peake told her the panels on the machines kept “popping open,” according to both women.
Peake said she eventually got the panel closed, but it remained “easy to tamper with.”
ExpressVote XL machines only accept “certified and approved USB flash drives containing encrypted data,” according to ES&S, making it impossible for other devices to “change the election definition or system firmware.”
Three of six counties in New Jersey and Delaware that also use ExpressVote XL machines said they hadn’t experienced any problems with them. Combined, they have used 700 machines so far.
“There were no issues relative to tabulating the votes, or how voters marked their votes,” said Nicole DiRado, the elections board administrator of Union County, New Jersey, which has deployed 432 machines in local elections so far.
The other three counties didn’t respond to requests for comment.
By Julia Harte