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Cancellation of project to upgrade Pa.’s outdated voter roll system leaves election officials with no relief in sight

The Department of State ended its years-long contract with a tech vendor after work fell behind schedule.

Columbia County Elections Director Matthew Repasky uses the SURE terminal at his desk during the May 2023 primary. (Photo by carter Walker)

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The state has canceled a planned upgrade to Pennsylvania’s system for managing voter rolls, leaving officials stuck for the foreseeable future with a process and technology they say is outdated and inefficient.

The contract cancellation will not affect the coming presidential election — the Department of State already decided to keep the older system in place for 2024. But election administrators said they’re frustrated to hear they’ll have to continue to use the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, known as SURE, which has caused problems in the past.

Pennsylvania’s two-decades-old voter roll system is the crucial tool election officials use to add, remove, or update the status of every voter in the state. County election offices constantly use the system to check voter registrations, track mail ballots, and generate the poll books used every Election Day to check in voters at precincts.

Election administrators describe the system as outdated, complaining of frequent outages and malfunctions that cause delays in their voter roll management and preparations for elections. It often freezes or abruptly shuts down, particularly during high-traffic times like federal elections, which see significant bumps in turnout.

“The system is 20 years old, so if computer years are dog years, it’s like 100 years old,” Mercer County Elections Director Thad Hall said. “We had a day before the 2022 election where the system was down for 24 hours while people were trying to [generate] poll books. So the system is very unstable.”

But earlier this month, state Deputy Secretary for Elections and Commissions Jonathan Marks sent an email to county officials saying the election technology company KNOWiNK and the state department had mutually agreed to cancel the contract for an updated system. The contract had been signed in 2020 under the commonwealth’s previous administration.

In the email, which was obtained by Votebeat and Spotlight PA, Marks wrote that the cancellation came after Al Schmidt became Secretary of the Commonwealth earlier this year and “took a hard look at the progress of the SUREVote System project.”

“Unfortunately, the department has concluded that the vendor will not meet those timelines and contractual standards,” Marks added.

Department officials did not comment on the exact reason why the contract was terminated, but during a state Senate hearing Tuesday, Schmidt said it became apparent in January that the department and KNOWiNK were “struggling to work together” on the project.

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“It became clear, despite several efforts to get things back on track, despite our putting a series of sort of mini-deadlines in place to make sure progress was being made at least incrementally, that the vendor was not going to be able to fulfill those requirements,” Schmidt said.

An outdated and expensive system

The SURE system came online in 2003, a year after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which required states to create centralized voter registries. Prior to that, voter rolls were often created and maintained on a county-by-county basis. Over the past two decades, as technology has improved, Pennsylvania’s system has become obsolete.

As Lehigh County Election Director Tim Benyo told the Brennan Center for Justice in 2019, “the system is really outdated, and it has gotten Band-Aid after Band-Aid and requires a lot of money to keep it working properly.”

On top of that, the state’s 2019 no-excuse mail voting law substantially altered what data election directors needed to track, and the SURE system wasn’t set up for that.

For example, Hall said, SURE does not effectively communicate with the database of voters requesting mail ballots. That means that if a mail ballot voter changes their address or party affiliation in the SURE system between the primary and general election, it doesn’t automatically transfer over to the mail ballot request database. Rather, election officials must manually check that the same information in the mail ballot requestor list to ensure it is correct, and if it isn’t, they have to update it manually.

SURE also doesn’t allow officials to customize emails that are sent out to voters. For example, if a voter sends in a duplicate mail ballot application, the system can only say the application was rejected and not that it was duplicative.

In late 2019, the department sought bids to replace the system, and in December 2020 it signed a $10.7 million contract with South Dakota-based elections software company BPro Inc. BPro was later acquired by KNOWiNK, a Missouri-based election software and technology company.

The project was initially scheduled to wrap up by early 2023 so that the new system would be in place for the 2024 presidential election. But it became increasingly apparent to local election officials that would not happen, and this past summer, the Department of State told them the new system would not be rolled out until at least 2025.

A spokesperson for the department said KNOWiNK has agreed to return all money paid to it since the beginning of the Shapiro administration, a total of $720,400.

The state also paid BPro and KNOWiNK more than $1.8 million prior to that, according to the state Treasury, and the Department of State did not mention any agreement to return those funds.

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It remains unclear what counties will do with equipment they purchased in anticipation of the new system and if that equipment will be compatible with whatever comes next. Many, like Columbia County, used federal grant dollars to purchase laptops and two-factor authentication keys that officials expected to need for accessing the new system.

“I wouldn’t have gotten those if I knew we werent going to go with [the new system],” Columbia County Elections Director Matthew Repasky said, adding that he spent roughly $7,500.

Marks said in his email to counties that purchases made using federal funds “will not go to waste” and that whatever new system comes next will “be designed with the original goals of this project in mind.”

A spokesperson for the department said they expect a new request for proposals to go out in April, and Schmidt said he hopes a new vendor will be selected by summer 2024.

Because the SURE system is not connected to the internet, each county must have computer terminals provided by the department that connect the county directly to the state’s server. The department is currently replacing those SURE terminals and said roughly a quarter of counties had already received the new ones.

Hall, of Mercer County, noted that while the new terminals will make connecting to the system quicker, it will not fix underlying issues, likening it to putting new mirrors and a steering wheel on a car with an engine from the 1960s.

Flaws would have hobbled new system

County election officials got a preview of the system KNOWiNK was developing early this year, and election officials who spoke with Votebeat and Spotlight PA around the time of the demonstrations said the previewed system was unworkable and wasn’t taking into account some of the intricacies of Pennsylvania law, though it was still being developed.

The new system couldn’t pull reports showing which voters had received mailings notifying them of potential removal from the rolls, which would make tracking these legally required mailings difficult.

Hall said one of the underlying problems with the effort, and one that will also complicate future projects, lies with Pennsylvania’s archaic voter registration law. The law was written at a time when a physical paper record had to be transferred from one county to another whenever a voter moved, which required more back-and-forth between election offices.

For instance, if a voter moved to Mercer from Venango County in the 1990s, Hall would have to call Venango and ask for the person’s details to be released and mailed to him so he could combine it with the Mercer County application information and register the voter there — a cumbersome process which could take up to 10 days. This process made sense when counties each had their own registration system, but is obsolete now that there is a statewide, digital voter registration system.

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In the digital era, counties have almost entirely moved away from these paper records, so now Hall could theoretically just pull the voter from Venango’s roll to Mercer’s roll directly via SURE. But the law hasn’t changed, so he’s still required to request a release from Venango as if there were a paper record that needed to be mailed. This can cause delays during times when many voters are updating records, such as before an election, or if election officials are not checking their systems for release requests.

Other states, like Florida, do these transfers instantly, Hall said.

“Everyone has known about this and no one has tried to fix it,” he said. “Even going forward they will still have problems because they will have to work in this craziness.”

Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz, who is vice chair of the legislature’s Election Law Advisory Board, said that beginning sometime in 2022, the State Department began to slow its timeline for implementing the new system. Kantz said that while he doesn’t know specifically what the cause of the breakdown was, he credits the department for not pushing out a flawed system and was pleased to hear the state is investing in SURE, which he thinks will help.

Counties, he said, are always left coping with the challenges they can’t control. “At the end of the day ... we’re going to do what we have to do to run an election and we’ll figure it out,” he said. “But it’s really really important that we have a system that works.”

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA contributed to this report.

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