Hack-Resistant Vote Machines Missing as States Gird for '18 Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Past piles of hay outside the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, vendors in a meeting hall hawked their latest secure voting technology. Local officials and activists tapped sleek Android screens in a mock election and saw the results documented on printouts.

Yet none of the state-of-the-art equipment displayed will be used for the battleground state’s May 15 primary. That’s despite fears of hacking spawned by Russian meddling in the national election two years ago and the narrow margin of victory in key recent contests from Alabama to Pennsylvania. There’s too little time and money, officials say.

Hack-Resistant Vote Machines Missing as States Gird for '18 Vote

U.S. election season is well underway, with Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia all holding primaries on Tuesday. Control of Congress in November’s midterm election may hinge on voters in Pennsylvania, a closely divided state that helped President Donald Trump clinch his 2016 victory. But like several other states, there’s a gaping hole in Pennsylvania’s machinery of democracy: It has some of the oldest, least secure voting technology in the country.

“We want secure elections,” said Jenifer Maslow, a volunteer with a group called Citizens for Better Elections. She came to the fairgrounds in Harrisburg, the state capital, late last month to spend hours trying out new voting equipment. “If a machine breaks down, the poll workers might not realize it for several hours” and “you can’t get those people to come back” to vote.

Even with more federal funds coming their way, most states can’t afford to make needed upgrades.

Pennsylvania is among 11 states with paperless machines that aren’t getting enough federal aid to replace them, according to an analysis by Verified Voting and the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina also made that list for relying largely on voting systems without a paper trail that can provide a reliable recount if one is needed.

Federal Funds

In Pennsylvania, the state government is requiring that all voting machines come with a verifiable paper record, but not until the end of 2019. Many states plan to use their share of $380 million in federal funds for election security from the omnibus spending bill passed in March on new equipment. That’s a boon for voting machine manufacturers, but hardly sufficient to overhaul the aging systems.

U.S. intelligence officials have said this year’s elections offer potential targets for more hacking after attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign. While the previous effort focused mostly on spreading false information and releasing stolen emails, Russians targeted voter registration databases in 21 states, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Only Illinois has indicated publicly that some of its voter data had been stolen.

The U.S.’s decentralized, locally based election system -- involving more than 9,000 jurisdictions -- has the unintended virtue of being hard to tamper with. So does its lack of networking: Voting machines aren’t connected to the internet, although some voter registration rolls are.

Hanging Chads

Most states bought their voting machines with almost $4 billion from the “Help America Vote Act” in 2002, which was aimed at fixing different flaws, like the “hanging chad” punch-card ballots that made a mess of the presidential recount in Florida in 2000. But much of that equipment “may now be reaching the end of its life span,” the Government Accountability Office said in an April report.

This time, Pennsylvania will receive about $14 million from the federal government. State officials estimate, though, it will cost $90 million to $150 million to replace all their outdated voting machines.

The same is true in others states. While Louisiana will buy some new machines with $6 million from Washington, state officials say they need an additional $40 million to $60 million. Georgia, which will get $10.8 million in federal aid, has a commission studying options to replace its outmoded machines.

In Pennsylvania, officials say the goal is to make the vote more reliable and assure citizens their ballots will be counted correctly.

“Everything that happened on social media, all the misinformation, those things feed into that narrative that you can’t trust the election,’’ Jonathan Marks, chief of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, said in an interview. “Those messages are hard to fight — that’s part of the reason that we want to move to new technology.”

The University of Pittsburgh has said it’s organizing a commission of former state and federal officials, to be led by Paul McNulty, who served as deputy U.S. attorney general in the Bush administration, to study Pennsylvania’s election security.

‘Under Assault’

Months after intelligence officials testified to Congress that Trump had failed to mobilize the federal government to prevent future attempts to hack the vote, the White House announced that the president met last week with top officials to discuss “efforts to bolster the security of the nation’s election systems.” The statement cited efforts to encourage state and local officials to follow “best practices like using paper ballots.”

Karen Publick, owner of an antiques shop in Bucks County, outside Philadelphia, said she’s long questioned paperless machines.

“When you hear that we are under assault, that hacking is possible and it’s a matter of time — of course, we’re worried,” said Publick, who’s an election security campaigner with the volunteer group SAVE Bucks Votes.

In March, Democrat Conor Lamb beat Republican state Representative Rick Saccone in a special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th district. Saccone conceded, with fewer than 800 votes separating them and no way to check the digital vote count against a paper ballot. Both are running again in November in different districts under the state’s redrawn congressional map.

Kevin Skoglund, a computer programmer and cybersecurity consultant, volunteers with Maslow in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia. He travels weekly to Harrisburg to lobby state legislators for more voting equipment funding, often meeting with Republicans who control the state’s General Assembly.

“We’ve definitely said to them ‘Hey, you know that race in Pennsylvania 18 that you said you wanted a recount? You couldn’t,’’’ he said.“Recounting wasn’t actually an option.’’

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