Replace Pennsylvania voting machines right now

The Pennsylvania Secretary of State has directed that all new voting machines must produce a back-up paper record, which can be used to verify vote tallies. It's a great step, but the Governor's budget allocates zero funding for the move.

March 4, 2018

Cross-posted from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pennsylvania’s Acting Secretary of State Robert Torres last month directed that, going forward, all voting machines purchased in the state must employ “a voter-verifiable paper ballot or paper record of votes cast.”

This was great news. It will help ensure the accuracy of vote-counting in Pennsylvania and give voters more confidence in election results. It was long overdue.

 The two key words in the directive are “verifiable” and “paper,” neither of which apply to how the vast majority of Pennsylvanians have been voting since 2006.

Currently, 83 percent of Pennsylvania voters use direct-recording electronic systems, or DREs — voting machines that produce no paper ballot for voters to verify before leaving their polling places and that therefore leave no paper trail to follow if election results are contested.

DREs are computer systems. Have you ever had your computer crash? Have you ever heard of computer systems being hacked?

The secretary’s directive comes on the heels of warnings from leaders of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia already is trying to influence our elections, as it did in 2016. It also is likely that Russia will again probe our voting systems. NBC has reported that intelligence officials believe Russia penetrated the websites or voter registration systems of seven states prior to the 2016 election.

We must protect our democracy, which depends on public trust in the way we choose our leaders. All voters must be confident that their votes and only legitimate votes are counted.

Voter-marked paper records help safeguard the accuracy of voting results in the event of a hack or software failure. They make it possible to conduct post-election audits and recounts to verify machine records. Paperless DRE results cannot be verified, which is why the Pennsylvania Department of State must never recertify DRE machines.

Getting rid of DREs comports with the department’s stated goal: to guarantee “that the next generation of the commonwealth’s voting systems can conform to enhanced standards concerning resiliency, auditability and security.” But, while its directive set strict guidelines on the types of voting machines Pennsylvania must purchase, the state has provided no money to buy them. The Wolf administration’s budget, released just days before the directive was announced, allocates zero funding for new machines.

This is a big problem for two reasons.

First, until the state provides its share of the money needed to replace voting equipment, most Pennsylvania voters will continue to cast ballots on DREs that do not guarantee the “resiliency, auditability and security” of our election system. 

Second, many DREs are reaching the end of their lifespans, which makes them even more likely to produce inaccurate results or break down. Many precincts use machines running on outdated software and unsupported platforms, further exposing our elections results to error.

New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice recently surveyed election officials across the country, including some from 35 counties in Pennsylvania, asking whether they had sufficient funds to replace their voting equipment. Only one county in Pennsylvania, Cumberland, said it had enough. As one director of elections put it: “State and federal funding are crucial factors for many counties across the commonwealth. Not every county is financially able to spend $2 million on new equipment.”

Appropriating funds for new machines is unquestionably the most important task ahead to ensure the reliability of our election system. And time is of the essence as the Nov. 6 local, state and national elections approach.

As one election official said, counties “need to get the ball rolling” on purchasing new equipment because they don’t want to make major changes to their voting systems just before an election. The window for action is closing fast.

The General Assembly must act with urgency. It must include money in this year’s budget to help Pennsylvania counties replace their aging, unreliable and  unverifiable voting equipment. If the state department’s directive is not funded, it means little.

During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan would often repeat a proverb that summed up his approach to dealing with Russia (ironically) and its promises: Trust but verify.

To date, Pennsylvanians have had reason to trust that their votes are being counted accurately. But shouldn’t they also be able to verify it — especially at time when our voting systems are under unprecedented threat?