To e-poll or not to e-poll?

That’s the question facing Lebanon County election officials heading into November’s municipal election.

On Wednesday, county officials heard presentations from representatives of two e-poll vendors who demonstrated how e-polling works during a workshop session of the county commissioners.

County officials in attendance included county commissioners Michael Kuhn and Jo Ellen Litz; the three members of the temporary board of election officials; Michael Schroeder, a Democratic candidate for the office of county commissioner; and voter registration/election office staff.

The current election board, composed of three county residents, is temporary because all three county commissioners are up for election this fall and are prohibited by state law from serving on that board when running for office. 

Electronic poll books, also known as e-poll books, are digitized voter registries that are used in lieu of paper voter lists at polling places to check voters in on Election Day. It was noted during the meeting that about 40 other Pennsylvania counties have adopted the use of e-poll books to conduct their elections.

E-poll books verify whether a voter is eligible to vote in the precinct in which they arrive to vote. The voter’s last name, first name and date of birth appear on the digitized screen for the election worker along with one of three colored lights, which are similar to the universal traffic light system. 

A green light indicates the voter is approved to vote. A yellow light indicates that something is amiss and needs to be corrected before the voter is allowed to cast their ballot, and a red light means stop, do not proceed. When given a green light, the voter is asked to sign the book electronically before proceeding to vote.

Two representatives of Omaha-based Elections Systems and Software (ESS) gave their presentation first, which included a list of the reasons e-poll books are preferred over printed poll books. Greater efficiency in conducting elections that save time was cited as one of the major benefits.

The other vendor to present was St. Louis-based KNOWiNK, who also discussed similar benefits for county election workers. 

Following the first of the two vendor presentations, Litz stated a number of security concerns as to why she is not in favor of the county adopting e-polling. 

“You know my philosophy on (electronic) poll books, they are not good,” Litz said to the ESS representatives. “I have read numerous articles, including some of the county’s mentioned that did not have good experiences already. … People who want to do us harm will have backdoors that they can access, they can get into those things. … I don’t like (e-)poll books, period.”

Litz cited other concerns about the electronic books, which are essentially iPads, saying they could be lost or stolen, adding that e-poll books would make an already fragile voting process in America even more divisive among the nation’s voters.   

Kuhn did not make a public comment, but told LebTown between presentations that while they could ultimately save time during an election, he’s worried about bad actors hacking the system and adding non-existent names to the county’s voter rolls. 

Sean Drasher, director of the Lebanon County Voter Registration/Elections, told LebTown after the workshop that printed poll books would be kept for a period of time to match against their electronic counterparts, which would cross reference the information to ensure voter integrity.

A cybersecurity rep of KNOWink said via telephone during the second presentation that their security system uses the same technology as the FBI and other top federal agencies to prevent someone from hacking into a county’s e-poll books. 

What comes next concerning the potential adoption of the technology is unclear. 

After the meeting, Drasher told LebTown that he was deferring questions about next steps in the process to county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth. Wolgemuth, however, referred those same questions to temporary elections board chair Jon Arnold, saying it was up to the elections board to decide whether they would move forward or not with pursuing e-polling for the upcoming election cycle.

Contacted after the meeting via telephone, Arnold told LebTown that he needed to confirm next steps with county officials since the proper protocols are new to him. 

Asked for a comment for this story concerning his impressions of e-poll books, Arnold said he “needed time to process the information that was presented at the workshop session before making any public comments about them.”

A vote to proceed with e-poll books would require a duly advertised public meeting of the elections board, according to Arnold. He was uncertain, however, whether a decision not to proceed would necessitate a public meeting. 

Drasher said he is pursuing this digital technology at this time for several reasons. 

He told LebTown there is state funding available via an EIG (Election Integrity Grant) that may not be there next year for a product that is quite expensive. Drasher added that the county would need between 300 to 400 e-polling books and their accessories for the county’s 60 voting precincts. 

“I don’t have exact figures at this time, but the cost is astronomically expensive,” said Drasher. “And we would not spend any county funds thanks to the availability of the state grant, whose funding window for the year opens in the next few weeks.”  

He also said he’d prefer to roll out the new technology this year instead of next. 

“My goal is to have this move forward in some form so that we have at least a trial rollout in the fall. I don’t want to roll it out cold during a presidential cycle. I am not worried about it on our (operational) side, I just don’t want any unnecessary variables in a presidential election year,” he added.  

Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate as much human error from the election process as possible. 

“Any time you are touching data, there is the chance of having human error,” said Drasher. “People make mistakes – it happens in every county and every election. We go back and we catch them, but it is a slow and tedious process. This is a click, click, click and you have your results.”

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...


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