Berks County voters, get prepared for a new experience at the polls next month.

The county will roll out new voting machines for the upcoming election, which will allow people to vote electronically while also providing a paper backup of their ballot for the first time.

Elections Director Deborah M. Olivieri said the county purchased the new voting machines to replace the system that had been in place for three decades, following months of deliberation among election officials. The nearly $4.5 million purchase of the new machines from Election Systems & Software fulfills a state directive that all election systems produce a paper trail to track ballots stemming from national concerns about election integrity and Russian-backed hacking attempts in the 2016 presidential election.

Since the new voting machines arrived at the end of July, Olivieri said educating voters and training poll workers has been her primary focus leading up to Election Day.

How the machines work

The new system, the ExpressVote, will allow voters to use touchscreens to make their selections. The machines then print paper ballots that include a barcode and plain text, giving voters a chance to look at the receipt to assure their vote was recorded correctly.

The bar code is read by a scanner — casting the vote. Administrators will also be able to look at all the votes on the machine, but they would not be able to match a vote to a person. The ballots will then be secured in a bag in the tabulation machine until the polls close at 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.

Olivieri said the judge of elections at each voting precinct will remove the bag and securely close it in the presence of two other poll workers. The judge of elections will then take the bag to the county elections office on Election Night.

The plain text version will serve as the official record of votes. The Pennsylvania Department of State, which certified the ExpressVote system last November, has ordered that the text will be used for audits and recounts.

Olivieri said the ballots will remain in her office until the election results are certified and then archived.

Preparing for a big change

"We are going to be ready to roll," Olivieri said during a recent interview. "It has been a lot of work to get everything done. I went through this 30 years ago with the old machines so this is my second time around."

She said her team has overseen more than 100 hours of public demonstrations to prepare voters for what they should expect to see when they show up to cast their ballots and have held several training sessions for poll workers who will be responsible for making sure the process runs smoothly.

"It's been challenging at times," she said.

Olivieri said the biggest hurdle she ran into was finding organizations in Reading willing to host public demonstrations. She said those demonstrations have been an important part of educating voters.

But, she said, the effort to educate voters will not stop after the election next month.

"For a municipal election like this one we're looking at maybe 25% turnout so our presentations aren't going to end come November," she said. "Next year will be a huge election where we may have more than 70% turnout. So this education has to continue."

And, she added, poll workers will be on hand to provide help to those who have questions.

Poll workers have been attending two-hour training sessions at the Berks County Agricultural Center that cover how to set up the voting machines, that explore the different scenarios workers could encounter, that address the steps needed to ensure the ballots are secure and that explain how to close down the polls.

The sessions, which are mandatory for judges of elections and machine inspectors, have been getting positive reviews from those who will be on the front lines of this change on Election Day.

Larry Drogo, an Exeter Township resident and judge of elections at the Stonersville Fire Company, said the new system appears to be straightforward and uncomplicated.

"There is a little more work at night closing the system down, but during the day it will be much easier to monitor what voters are doing," he said. "There may be a few people who will need some guidance. But you will always have that when you do something for the first time."

Elaine Swavely, a Muhlenberg Township resident who will likely serve as a clerk of elections at the Goodwill Fire Company, said she believes very few people will have trouble voting with the new system. Using a touchscreen is something most people have mastered, she said.

"It may be intimidating the first time but they will get the hang of it," she said.

Hilary Deighan, a Spring Township resident and judge of elections at Spring Ridge Elementary School, said there will be a learning process but she's confident that everything will go smoothly on Election Day.

"We have already had a lot of exposure to the system," she said.

Sarah Ehrlich, a Spring Township resident and machine inspector at Glad Tidings Church, said she's optimistic that poll workers are going to be ready for any question voters may have.

"We have a step-by-step manual that we can refer to at all times," she said. "And I like that all judges of elections and machine inspectors had to get this new training so that the responsibility doesn't just fall to one person."

Deighan and Ehrlich said the best advice they can give voters is to take their time.

"Read the screen and you will be fine," Ehrlich said.

"And if you need help, just ask us," Deighan added.

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