The Lancaster County commissioners approved a $30,000 addition covered by a state grant to its mail-in ballot sorting machine at last week’s commissioner’s meeting.
The update to the sorting machine that originally went into service in September adds another “stacker,” giving it the ability to sort ballots into 12 pockets instead of eight. The machine, built by Phoenix-based Runbeck Election Services Inc., identifies whether ballots are signed and dated, separating those ballots that aren’t marked properly.
Lancaster County elections director Christa Miller said the option of having 12 pockets instead of eight to sort ballots will provide better service in next year’s municipal elections since there are more government positions to be tallied compared to a gubernatorial or federal election.
“This was something we wanted to see how we were going to use (the sorter) first before we decided to spend the money and then realizing as we got through this election and looking ahead to any municipal election, where we will have to sort by school district, that it would require us to do four different sorts instead of two different sorts, which just honestly take up more time,” Miller said. “It’s more on the envelopes in the ballots as well, trying to put those through the sorter now four to five times. So, we’re trying to cut all of that back down, and we think this will help with it.”
Miller said the machine can also be programmed to sort ballots by voting precincts. In November’s 2022 general election, elections officials sorted ballots by state legislative districts because the machine could only sort ballots into a maximum of eight categories at a time. The nine legislative districts in Lancaster County required election workers to put ballots through the sorter twice to go to the proper slot.
With 19 school districts in Lancaster County, Miller said, the additional four slots will make the sorting much faster. She said it will also be helpful in the municipal primaries with even more races and candidates to be tabulated.
Miller said the increased slots allows election workers to perform recounts quicker or prioritize scanning of ballots in highly contested races with larger voter turnout. She said if a township supervisor race was expected to be competitive, the ballots from the corresponding school district can be tabulated from the larger number in a legislative district.
Commissioner Josh Parsons said the machine does not open or count mail-in ballots.
“It simply takes the mail ballots as they come in and sorts them into the proper piles so they can then be opened and counted,” Parsons said.
The board of commissioners approved buying the sorting machine at its Aug. 24 meeting, and election officials received the machine in September. The machine and technical services from Runbeck cost $304,000 for 2022, plus a $35,000 preventative maintenance fee for each of the following five years.
The machine and services were 100% covered under Pennsylvania’s new Election Integrity Grant program approved by the legislature in July. Miller said the purchase of the new slots does not increase existing costs.
“It’s also already rolled into our preventative maintenance plan and does not increase our preventative maintenance plant costs, either,” Miller said.
Ephrata resident Melissa Ellis asked several questions about the machine, saying the mail-in ballot intake process is “quite murky to the general public.”
“It’s just something that happens somewhere in this building,” Ellis said. “In-person voting provides some level of transparency as you’re able to physically view at least a portion of the process.”
Commissioner Ray D’Agostino encouraged Ellis to become a poll watcher so she could see the sorting process firsthand.
“That’s the best way because somebody could tell you, but I don’t know about you, I’m a visual person,” D’Agostino said. “I have to see it.”