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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?

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.