Gov. Tom Wolf is moving to borrow up to $90 million to help Pennsylvania’s counties pay for new voting machines ahead of 2020’s election, announcing the step Tuesday after a dispute between the Democrat and the Republican-controlled Legislature doomed funding legislation.
Wolf said he was ordering a bond issue that would reimburse each county for 60% of their cost, according to Wolf’s administration, which provided little detail about the financing it will seek or the timeline for the move.
Wolf began pressing counties last year to replace their voting machines before 2020 after federal authorities warned Pennsylvania and at least 20 other states that Russian hackers targeted them during 2016’s presidential election.
That prompted a wide range of election integrity advocates and experts to urge states to switch to machines that produce an auditable paper trail.
Approval is required from the board of a state economic development financing agency that Wolf wants to use, and Republicans say they are researching what sort of legal authority the governor has to order the move.
Wolf suggested that legislative approval of the borrowing would be preferable and that Tuesday’s move is designed to at least give counties confidence that they won’t be left to pay a tab expected to exceed $100 million.
“It’s a proposal that we can move forward with, I think, and if there’s something that the Legislature wants to do that they think is better, again I’m all ears,” Wolf told reporters after an unrelated news conference in the Capitol. “But in the meantime, I think it’s important to show good faith and that’s what I’m doing here.”
Wolf’s administration has warned lawmakers that failing to replace Pennsylvania’s roughly 25,000 voting machines by next year’s elections could leave it as the only state without voter-verifiable paper systems, and certainly the only presidential battleground state in that position.
The money raised by the bond would have to be used for voting machines that have enhanced anti-hacking security, produce a paper record that allows a voter to double-check how their vote is recorded, and allow election officials to audit election results, Wolf’s administration said.
The so-called direct-recording electronic machines in wide use currently in Pennsylvania leave no paper trail and make it almost impossible to know if they’ve accurately recorded individual votes or if anyone tampered with the count.
Still, top Republican lawmakers resisted Wolf’s move to decertify voting machines, but then in late June they abruptly backed 11th-hour legislation that carried up to $90 million in borrowing authority to pay for new voting machines.
Wolf vetoed that measure Friday because Republicans packaged it with changes to election laws that Wolf said wouldn’t improve voting security or access, hadn’t been negotiated and didn’t include his priorities.
While Republicans bristled Tuesday at Wolf’s move to borrow without legislative approval, they also made no public pledge to advance standalone borrowing legislation.
As many as two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s counties could have new voting systems rolled out in this November’s election, and they are paying for it in the meantime with the property taxes that fund their operations, county officials say.
Wolf included one crucial change Tuesday in his stated intention to decertify voting systems, saying he would give counties that already use paper-based voting systems the opportunity to request an extension until June 2021 to select a new system. It wasn’t clear Tuesday whether that would ease complaints from counties being forced to switch.
Wolf’s administration has maintained that those machines are aging and will be more expensive in the future to replace.