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Mifflin County to purchase new voting machines

LEWISTOWN — Following lengthy discussion on the pros and cons, the Mifflin County Commissioners, by a 2-1 vote, approved a motion Thursday to enter into an agreement with Elections Systems and Software Products to purchase a new generation of voting equipment as mandated by the Pennsylvania State Legislature.

Voting in favor of the system, which will cost nearly $263,000, were Commissioners Kevin Kodish and Rob Postal. Commissioner Stephen Dunkle voted against the measure.

“My conscience demands that I protest this mandate by Governor Wolf and the commonwealth’s political apparatus,” Dunkle read from a written statement. “Governmental mandates forcing counties to purchase new voting equipment to achieve certified, auditable and safe election results, when Mifflin County already has that in place, are unconscionable. Therefore, I exercise my right to vote against this mandate and employ civil disobedience.”

Dunkle said approximately $41,000 of the total cost will be reimbursed largely by the federal government.

“Governor Wolf, through a bond issue, hopes to provide enough funding that the state will cover approximately 60 percent of total costs,” Dunkle said. “However, that is far from certain and may or may not happen. Even if it does, the county is forced to pay the entire cost up front before any reimbursement would occur.”

Dunkle said in late 2018 the commissioners approved a resolution to participate and he indicated at the time that he would only support it if the state provided full funding. He penned a guest editorial that appeared in The Sentinel and County Observer, referring to the mandate as “government flatulence at its worst. Is it any wonder people lose faith in government? Is it any wonder that people say the politicians are going to do whatever they want, so why vote?”

He added, “The state gives counties a limited means of generating revenue, namely property taxes. When we as commissioners are forced to outlay large sums of money for a ‘newer, improved model’ of what we already have, it is financial lunacy. To put it simply, it would be like having someone force you to buy a new car simply because you are driving an older model, even though the car you drive gives you no problems and just passed inspection with flying colors.

“The money Mifflin County will need to spend on new election equipment should be spent in other more productive ways to save our people tax money. Why should the state, through unnecessary mandates as this, force an 87-year-old cash-strapped widow to choose between eating, heating her home, taking her medicine or paying increased taxes?”

While Postal voted in favor of the measure, he said he agrees with Dunkle’s sentiments.

“This has put us in a situation that no commissioner wants to be in,” Postal said. “I hope and am confident that the governor and legislature will reimburse us partially and if they do, we will still have a bill of around $70,000 or so. And none of that is guaranteed.”

Postal said acting on the measure now in time for November’s general election would offset certain risks rather than waiting for the 2020 spring primary.

“There’s little to be gained by waiting,” Postal added, noting, “Our neighboring counties have been getting this done. I will vote for this reluctantly. We just have to accept the things that we can’t change.”

Kodish was also in favor of his colleagues’ remarks.

“I agree 100 percent with the sentiment expressed by Commissioner Dunkle,” Kodish noted. “The state acted imprudently when it agreed to the legal settlement that is causing this fiasco without giving due consideration to counties that already had voting machines that addressed the pertinent concerns, such as Mifflin County. Our machines already produce the required paper trail.

“With that said, we’re tasked with weighing the risks and rewards, the costs and the benefits of all the decisions that come though our office. If we do not purchase these machines, we risk that the Department of State will de-certify the machines, leaving us to have to hand count each and every ballot cast. We need to act now to ensure the new system is in place for the upcoming presidential primary election in 2020. Given the political climate, this election could be the most scrutinized presidential election in U.S. history, with possibly the largest voter turnout in history. We don’t want the slightest uncertainty cast over Mifflin County’s upcoming presidential election results next year.”

Kodish said the county needs to act now to obtain the maximum amount of reimbursement dollars.

“Forty-one thousand dollars of federal grant money goes away if we do not sign a purchase agreement by the end of this year,” he commented. “That’s $41,000 of additional tax money — your tax dollars — that would need to be spent to make this mandated purchase. We need to act now to ensure our election equipment is continually up-to-date with the latest technology. Our current machines were purchased in 2006, prior to the original Apple iPhone. Technology has vastly improved since then. The average life of a voting machine is approximately 15 years, so within a few years we will be reaching the end of their useful life anyway. While in principle I disagree with the position the governor has put counties in, my private disagreements over principle can’t trump my public duty to ensure I make the most prudent decisions for Mifflin County as a whole.”

Zane Swanger, the county’s director of elections, said three election vendors were given an opportunity to submit proposals and provide demonstrations on how the machines work. He said the new ES&S voting system will include precinct scanners and ADA compliant ballot marking devices for each precinct.

“Similar to what we have now,” he added.

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