Harrisburg to Philly: Buy new voting machines

WHYY_new_voting_machines.jpg(Image: WHYY)

Thanks to an order from the Department of State, all counties in Pennsylvania will be required to debut new, auditable voting machines by the 2020 Presidential election. Now the pressure is on the Kenney administration, City Council, and the City Commissioners to develop a forward-looking plan for election security—and pay for it.

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania Department of State announced that it would decertify outdated voting machines beginning in 2020 and require that they be replaced with voting technologies that produce verifiable paper backups. This is a hugely important step in ensuring the integrity of our elections, but is only one part of a seismic shift that needs to happen in Philadelphia to modernize our election system.

Why we need new machines

There are any number of reasons why we need new voting machines, but the most critical and emergent have to do with ensuring that election results perfectly reflect the way voters actually voted. That's impossible to do without some kind of check on the system. But as is the case in a majority of Pennsylvania counties, voting machines in Philadelphia are not capable of providing that check.

The problem with our current voting machines is that they don't know when they're wrong. At the end of an Election Day, poll workers print a receipt of the votes cast. If the poll workers suspect there might be an error, they can’t query the machine to check its math, since it will just spit out the same results over and over again.

If machines produced a paper backup after every vote, however, the Election Board could compare the machine’s results with those receipts. And because voters would review their receipts before submitting them, it would be a reliable system for auditing election results. Paper backups are the only way to ensure that Election Boards have a demonstrably accurate reflection of the votes cast, which is why the Pennsylvania DOS is obligating counties to transition to this technology.  

The other existential problem with our machines—putting maintenance and user-friendliness aside—is that they are vulnerable to hacking. Philadelphians vote on machines called direct-recording electronic machines, or DREs. DREs came into popularity following the hanging chad debacle in the 2000 election, and were considered the future of election technology for about five minutes. You might remember one of the biggest manufacturers of DREs at the time: Diebold.

Some voices in the conversation about election modernization argue that our machines are un-hackable because they aren’t connected to the Internet. This argument doesn’t hold water. DREs are computers, and like all computers, they can be hacked. It is due in large part to this concern that DOS is directing $14 million in state and federal funds to this upgrade process, as this is a hardware issue, not simply a software upgrade. And it's also why the State is going to have to pony up a lot more money, since they're requiring a complete overhaul of the state's stockpile of voting machines. 

The Pennsylvania Department of State should be commended for this move, although it is only half of the battle on the state-level. In order to secure both the administration and results of elections, DOS ought to prioritize securing the state’s voter file software, called SURE. The SURE system is where all the state’s voter registration information lives—names, ages, addresses, registration status—and for that reason is vulnerable to ransomware attacks. And it is impossible to hold an election with a compromised voter file. New machines are essential, but are rendered effectively useless if there's a catastrophic problem with the voter file. 

What needs to happen in Philadelphia

This new requirement will, undoubtedly, dramatically change the City's timeline for replacing its outdated machines. In 2015, the City Commissioners requested a $22 million appropriation for new voting machines. That request was roundly rebuffed, with Council President Darrell Clarke arguing that the machines “clearly do not need to be replaced.” That was the last time this issue surfaced in any real way. 

Three years later, the City no longer has a choice. The question becomes how the Administration, Council, and the Commissioners will work together to dedicate the funds to replace nearly 4,000 voting machines. If they fail to do so by 2020, the Department of State will decline to certify the city’s election result from that year, creating a crisis during a Presidential election year.   

The City doesn’t have carte blanche when deciding what machines to purchase; it can only buy hardware and software certified by DOS. However, it is incumbent upon those involved in the procurement of new machines to listen to stakeholders’ demands for a more modern and secure election system. That means any number of things, however, three key priorities are:

  • Machines that are capable of handling elections that follow a different election style. Our current machines can only run one type of election: static ballot position and first past the post. Our next machines shouldn’t dictate what types of elections we can run. There is pressure building around Ranked Choice voting and randomized ballot position; our machines must be able to accommodate those reforms.

  • Similarly, the new machines must privilege future-oriented concerns, not simply those driving this process right now. This means proactively identifying potential security and accessibility issues at the outset and demanding a system that addresses them.

  • Finally, as part of a more holistic election modernization agenda, the City must commit to producing new electronic poll books. Electronic poll books provide a host of advantages, the most essential being that they allow the voter list to be updated instantaneously. This allows for a more nimble voter registration process, and eliminates the risk that voters will be disenfranchised.

All evidence suggests that the Department of State is moving on this issue. Representatives from Philadelphia must become part of the conversation about future election technologies. If we aren't, we risk investing in machines that are rendered obsolete before the end of their life cycle. And frankly, the last thing we need is for Philadelphia to play the role of Palm Beach County in the 2020 Presidential election. 

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  • V. Kurt Bellman
    commented 2018-04-18 11:18:13 -0400
    This story is one continuous lie after another. It represents a fringe ideology without benefit of facts. Danaher 1242 voting machines are NOT HACKABLE, PERIOD! The Acting Secretary AND THE GOVERNOR lack the constitutional authority to make such an order.