Voters will get to try the new machines during May's school board elections

Voters heading to the school board elections next month will find something new: updated voting machines, the first major change in more than 20 years to the way the First State casts ballots.

Its time had come, State Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove said. The old machines, from 1996, were obsolete.

“The process actually started a few years ago,” she said. “The ballots in the old machines were using Windows XP, and that’s not supported anymore.”

Realizing the need, the General Assembly in 2016 formed a Voting Equipment Selection Task Force with Manlove as its chairwoman. Manlove was tasked to research and select up to five vendors for presentation to the task force by March 2017. The committee would recommend which would get a state contract.

The panel, however, did not get to work until March 2017, not wrapping up until about three months later. Manlove said a lack of available appointees from the incoming Carney administration and delays by the state Senate in appointing its members to the panel accounted for the lack of progress.

Before the task force released any information on the vendors, Delaware’s nonpartisan Common Cause group published the bid documents online and, at the same time, advocated for a paper ballot system it argued was less expensive and not subject to some of the security woes of other electronic systems.

An open meeting was scheduled to allow the public to weigh in on the choice before Manlove’s commission would make a recommendation to the General Assembly, which would approve the final choice.

“We brought in vendors with different types of equipment,” Manlove said. “I wanted everyone to see what was there.”

Sellers suggested everything from voting by mail to printing paper ballots that would be run through an optical scanner, she said.

In September, the Omaha-based Election Systems & Software was the committee’s unanimous choice. A bond bill appropriated $10 million in state funding. The federal government put in an additional $3 million.

There are 1,355 new voting machines along with a tablet-like device that allows poll workers to electronically check in and verify voter registrations, a new voter registration system and a new system for handling absentee ballots.

Although some proposals included a ballot where the voter would fill in a circle to make their selection, the task force felt the Election Systems & Software company’s approach, producing a printed card where selections are clearly presented, was the best.

The system allows for write-in candidates and includes the write-in’s name, printed with the rest of the selections, on the card.

This way, the voter has two ways of confirming their votes and lets them know their votes are being tallied properly, Manlove said.

Creating the paper trail

Voters won’t notice a lot of difference between the new machines and the ones they’re replacing, Manlove said. Like the current machines, the new devices will include a curtain for voter privacy.

Upon coming into the polling area, a voter’s identity will be confirmed and he or she will electronically sign the digital tablet held by the poll worker. The voter will be given an otherwise blank paper card carrying a bar code matched to the registration log.

It tells the machine which election district the voter is from and does not identify the voter by name.

The voter puts the card in, much as customers do with a debit card at a gas pump.

The bar code will bring up that district’s on-screen ballot and voters will tap a candidate’s name to make their choice. The touch screen will register the selection digitally, similar to the way shoppers use screens at checkout lines to pay, she said.

When the voter is finished, the machine prints all choices on the card, which then shows up in a window so the voter can inspect it. It then goes into a secure bin with all other ballots.

“That paper then becomes a ballot of record for a recount or an audit,” Manlove said.

“You’ll be able to see your vote on a piece of paper. You can’t take it with you, but you can see it.”

This is the modern-day equivalent of marking a paper ballot, she said. It allows the voter to know for a fact his or her choices are recorded accurately.

The locked bins will be kept at her office if an audit or recount is needed, Manlove said.

This provides what is called a voter-verifiable paper audit trail for the first time since the state stopped using wooden ballot boxes decades ago.

Confirmation of a proper vote

Manlove said her office was sensitive to demands by advocacy groups, including Common Cause, that the new system have a way to back up the electronic balloting.

Worries about outside interference in the election system have spurred much of that concern.

“Nobody trusts anything anymore,” Manlove said. “Everyone wants to see what they’ve voted in case the machine is misrepresenting their vote. I don’t honestly think that’s a big issue.”

Establishing that accountability was a requirement for bids, even though there’s never been a substantiated case of election fraud in Delaware, Manlove said.

“We do a lot of work to make sure people don’t vote twice, but it’s hard to convince some people of that,” she said.

Jennifer Hill, program director at Delaware’s Common Cause, unsuccessfully lobbied the task force to consider a paper ballot-only system as one way of beating any possible fraud.

“The story of the electronic voting system has shown there are times when there are errors or malfunctions,” Hill said.

Hill pointed to an August 2018 primary election in one Kentucky county using newly bought Election Systems & Software machines where there were problems tabulating the ballots. The company apologized and fixed the software. Later news reports indicated there were no related errors during the November general election.

Hill notes the ability to use stored paper ballots is an improvement over the past.

But she still has concerns. Any time a new system is brought online, people can get confused because they’re used to how things were done in the past, she said.

“The fact that it is brand new [means it] will take time for people to get used to it, and it will take longer to vote,” she said. “There will be a learning curve, and I don’t know how long that will take.”

Hill urges Delaware residents to take responsibility for their votes.

“We’re not trying to scare anyone,” she said. “But this is something new and untested and we want people to pay attention when they’re voting to make sure the machine accurately records their vote.”

The best of both worlds

Joe McIntyre, a customer relations manager for Election Systems & Software, was on hand during a public demonstration of their voting machine at Dover Downs in February.

The system was designed to be secure, he said, and at no time are machines connected to the internet.

Results from each election are stored under three layers of electronic encryption, and bins receiving printed paper cards are kept under a double seal. A copy of each paper ballot is stored electronically. He said, “That way if someone steals the ballot box or if it gets lost or misplaced, there is a digital image of every ballot.”

Manlove said the state has a five-year lease with a renewal clause. She expects these machines will be used for the next 20 years.

New laws required

Using the new machines requires changes to the Delaware Code governing elections, she said. There will be mandatory audits after each election to identify problems. Her office has conducted audits in the past, but now they will be required.

Bills are due to be introduced in the General Assembly soon, to be passed and signed by the 2020 primaries. They don’t need to be in effect for school board elections, she said.

The new machines have been demonstrated at the General Assembly for legislators and several times for the public. The school board election will be a soft introduction to the machines for Delaware voters.

Manlove believes the new system will provide electronic voting’s immediate results, yet provide a way to manually verify every vote if necessary.

“We’re going to be able to get the results the night of the election,” she said. The results will be downloaded onto a thumb drive, taken to the election commission and uploaded onto the internet.

“We’ll get our results just as fast, but we’ll also have the paper. In case there’s an audit or a question on anything that we have to hand count, we’ll have that paper. I think it’s the best of both worlds,” she said.