Green Party, election watchdogs get pushback in Pennsylvania

MARC LEVY, Associated Press

HARRISBURG — The Green Party’s quest for a recount of Pennsylvania’s Nov. 8 presidential election — and, perhaps more importantly, an examination for malware inside of voting machines or systems — is being met with resistance, even before a state judge hears the case.

FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2016 file photo, Green party presidential candidate Jill Stein meets her supporters during a campaign stop at Humanist Hall in Oakland, Calif. Stein is on track to raise twice as much for an election recount effort than she did for her own failed Green Party presidential bid. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

County after county has rejected the idea in recent days of performing the kind of software examination that the Green Party’s lawyers and computer scientists who have long studied election systems say would be necessary to show whether hackers rigged the election in Pennsylvania.

They’ve already done a network security audit, some county officials say. Others say granting outside access to their election systems would violate state law.

The state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Pedro Cortes, a Democrat, has said there was no evidence of any sort of cyberattacks or irregularities in the election.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016 file photo, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein delivers remarks at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Hillary Clinton's aides and supporters are urging dispirited Democrats to channel their frustrations about the election results into political causes - just not into efforts to recount ballots in three battleground states. The effort is being fueled by Stein, who's formed an organization to try to force recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. (Christopher Dolan/The Citizens' Voice via AP, File)

Meanwhile, lawyers for the state Republican Party and President-elect Donald Trump have sought to block the Green Party’s recount request in court. They note that the options for a recount under state law do not include a court-ordered recount.

A hearing was scheduled for Monday in Harrisburg.

Still, Pennsylvania is viewed as perhaps the nation’s biggest target to hack: It’s a swing state with a large number of electoral votes crucial to winning the White House and its election systems are seen as relatively vulnerable.

The Green Party’s seat-of-the-pants recount effort is targeting Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three states with a history of supporting Democrats for president that were won narrowly and unexpectedly by Trump.

Former Michigan Democratic Party chair Mark Brewer testifies on the side of Green Party candidate Jill Stein and promises a formal demand for a recount as members of the Michigan Board of Canvassers meet to certify the presidential election and hear from a party asking for a recount on Monday, Nov 28, 2016 in the Capitol in Lansing. Nearly three weeks after Election Day, Michigan officials certified that Donald Trump won the state by 10,704 votes out of nearly 4.8 million to claim all of its 16 electoral votes. Jill Stein's Green Party served notice that it would petition for a Michigan recount even as her party pushed forward with recount efforts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News via AP)

A forensic audit of election software is more important in Pennsylvania than in many other states, say nonpartisan election watchdogs. That’s because the vast majority of Pennsylvania voters cast ballots on a machine that does not show voters a paper receipt, independent of the machine software, to verify that the machine faithfully recorded their votes.

Pennsylvania also has one of the weakest laws for approving voting machines that counties can buy, said Lowell Finley, a former top California elections official who also helped sue in an unsuccessful bid to stop its use of paperless electronic voting machines in Pennsylvania.

Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, disputed that notion, saying models must be federally certified and are scrutinized by an independent expert.

In Allegheny County, a consultant’s analysis of its election tabulation network security for the Nov. 8 election wasn’t available, but the report from the primary election contained findings that Finley said raise alarms.

For instance, the system’s computers and servers were running software that was no longer supported or updated with security patches. Also, “remote assistance” and “remote desktop” were enabled.

Those, said Finley, “are like 8-lane expressways for any knowledgeable outsider to take complete control of a computer and all devices with which it is networked.”

All it takes is for the network to be connected to the internet, even briefly, Finley said.

There is no legal requirement that counties check election systems malware or hacking. Counties are required to conduct a post-election audit. That involves checking at least 2 percent or 2,000 of the votes cast, whichever is fewer.

In Philadelphia, for instance, election workers compare electronic vote tallies with paper tallies in randomly selected precincts to make sure the totals match up. That audit helps ensure machines counted correctly, Hill said.

But that requirement is useless if there’s no way for a voter to see a paper receipt that is independent of the machine’s software that shows how their vote was recorded, said Pamela Smith, president of the nonpartisan election watchdog Verified Voting.

Jessica Clarke, an attorney for the Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein's campaign leading recount efforts in Michigan, addresses the media, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 in Lansing, Mich. Michigan election officials are preparing to begin a recount of the state's presidential vote this week. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

“They can go through the motions, but I would say, ‘how do you do a legitimate audit?’” Smith said.

Pennsylvania should at least replace paperless electronic voting machines with newer models that allow voters to verify their vote on paper, said Lawrence Norden, of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Replacing them in Pennsylvania would be expensive — the last major update a decade ago cost more than $100 million, Hill said. And the federal government and many states are largely leaving that cost to counties, Norden said.

But, Norden said, given the nation’s polarized politics, close elections and the need for faith in election integrity, “it’s an invitation for a problem not to do so in this environment.”