RFID Automates Philadelphia Election Assets and Results

Published: January 15, 2024

By tracking the polling machines and bags of completed ballots with RFID, the elections officials are able to boost accuracy and reduce stress on poll workers

With Republicans casting their first votes in Iowa to kickoff the 2024 Presidential campaign, election authorities across the country want to make sure the November’s election are secure.

One of those is Philadelphia’s Department of Elections, who is proceeding with a system it has adopted and expanded over the past two elections using RFID.

The solution creates a digital record of each voting asset’s status as it is shipped to—and then received by—hundreds of polling sites, and then returned, along with completed ballots. Technology providers say the system offers transparency as well as automation, so that workers spend less time manually counting and checking the assets that capture votes.

RFID Solutions

The solution is provided by supply chain and asset management technology company InThing, using Zebra Technologies’ fixed and mobile readers.

They are used to read UHF RFID tags attached to assets like polling books and media sticks that update voting machine software, says Chris Sullivan, Zebra’s global strategy lead for public sector.

The city first adopted the system for November 2020 voting, to manage 3,500 machines across 720 polling locations. Initially the passive, adhesive UHF RFID tags were attached to 1,700 items. A year later the system ramped up to tracking 17,000 items and began using handheld readers as well as 11 fixed readers to track all the voting materials.

Replacing Pen and Paper

Philadelphia has more than one million registered voters. Traditionally, the Philadelphia Department of Elections workers used paper and pen to track when voting equipment and materials, including ballots, were sent to the polls and returned.

This was a time-consuming process that could enable errors, as well as traffic issues, as police officers and election officials lined up to receive or drop off ballot bags, and waited for them to be checked and authenticated. If errors did occur, such as poll books or media sticks being placed in the wrong bag, that error might not be detected right away and could ultimately delay the counting of ballots.

Media sticks (the flash drives used to provide updates on the voting machine software) can be highly sensitive. If one would go missing, voters or politicians might assume they were stolen or that nefarious activity was underway with voting machines.

To eliminate any disputes, the commissioners were looking for a solution that would make the elections process accurate, automated and trusted.

Voting Equipment Tracking Software

The elections board adopted InThing’s Voting Equipment Tracking Software (VETS). VETS comes with chain of custody management, precinct-based kitting, voting kit auditing, delivery validation, automated receiving, real-time reporting and exception handling.

VETS runs on a dedicated government cloud server, which provides the city with a layer of data security.

The city launched the solution with Zebra’s FX9600 Fixed RFID Readers at key choke-points, and MC3330xR UHF RFID mobile readers. The elections authorities could then manage voting assets and their chain of custody from the initial audit at the warehouse to the final reconciliation post-election using the system.

In November 2021 during local elections, the city scaled up its solution to include more locations and further reporting of the movement and status of materials.

How it Works

Voting machines, poll books and other materials are tagged and inventoried at the city’s warehouse before they are delivered to the polling centers.

At the warehouse, InThing’s Trapeze software monitors the movement of the voting equipment and supporting accessories as they pass through the fixed RFID reader portals.

Each portal captures the unique ID on individual tags and enables the software to analyze for left-behind items as well as to update the location of the materials. That data is then reviewed before assets leave the warehouse.

Once the polls close on election day at each polling site, the RFID-tagged bags containing the completed ballots are sealed. Police officers then pick up the bags and the supporting election accessories to drop them off at their pre-assigned destination.

Zebra MC3330xR handheld RFID readers running InThing Visium Mobile software, are used for spot-inventory of the sealed bags, without tampering with the seal, both at the pick-up and drop-off points, Sullivan says.

Improving Accuracy

By leveraging VETS software, along with the Zebra RFID infrastructure, the city can view automated, real-time updates about what materials are where, when, or if there are any missing items. The system can display when and where an item went missing based on the last RFID tag read. This reduces stress for workers who would otherwise use manual labor to count, or search for missing items.

The Philadelphia commission wanted to keep track of the ballots and related assets by digitizing the data, recalls Sullivan.

In some cases, politics have cast doubt on the voting process itself.  The technology could provide a tool to ensure trust in the system.

While InThing offers a business and product platform that specializes in voting authentication, for Zebra, the elections-based asset management application was a first. The latter company has been serving government agencies with asset management solutions for a variety of applications, but not elections.

Election Integrity

Beyond helping to ensure the integrity of the election process and results, Sullivan says a return on investment for government agencies is the faster speed of the workflow as well as reducing overtime costs.

“This actually helps improve the accuracy, but also improves the speed,” Sullivan says.

And for election workers, he adds, the solution has “helped create less pressure for police force or poll workers.”

The fixed readers offer additional security against errors by alerting users as soon as an error may be taking place (such as the wrong asset being removed with a specific pick-up). The handhelds, additionally enable counting of assets outside of the portal areas.

2024 Presidential Election

Since the last election, the Philadelphia City Commissioners will use the technology the same way they did, including for the coming presidential election.

“It can be painstaking [work] for employees to count and reconcile everything that’s happened at an election, along with all the equipment, that’s tense and stressful,” said Sullivan. With the technology “that can go away.”

The greater efficiency provides the city with cost savings as well, the companies report.

Sullivan adds that the solution provides elections officers “the ability to have fact-based information, organized quickly with all of the events that transpired digitally recorded.”

Officials from the technology companies, the solution is highly repeatable for other elections offices. However, RFID technology is not used for asset management by most offices.

Key Takeaways
  • After testing, deploying and expanding the technology use for two election rounds, the Philadelphia Department of Elections is preparing for the November presidential election with RFID.
  • The solution from InThing and Zebra Technologies is aimed at reducing time and stressors for poll workers and officials, while increasing accuracy and trust.