Replacing York County's outdated voting machines: Looming deadline, big bill

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

As the November election approaches, York County's voting machines reportedly are outdated, vulnerable to hacking and lacking a commonly used safety feature that might reveal meddling or mistakes.

In fact, most Pennsylvania counties are in the same boat, according to the Department of State, which is giving them until 2020 to upgrade their machines.

The switch won't be cheap, and no one is sure who's going to end up footing the bill, estimated to be about $125 million statewide.

More:What's the problem with York County's voting machines?

York County's machines are 12 years old and replaced lever-operated voting booths that had been in use for more than half a century.

Why the switch in the first place — and why is another needed so soon?

Following the disputed 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which mandated states modernize their election systems and created a nearly $4 billion fund to help them make the changes.

York County put its share of Pennsylvania's portion toward a $2.1 million purchase of 700 Sequoia AVC Edge voting machines in 2006.

More:Russians charged with meddling in 2016 presidential race

Compared to the booths, the new devices were high-tech, but they also were criticized from the start for lack of a low-tech feature: a paper trail.

Experts say a "voter-verifiable paper audit trail" is crucial to protecting elections from tampering or errors. It allows voters to check that the machine recorded their choices as intended and gives election officials a second record to refer to if there's a dispute.

Pennsylvania is one of just 15 states where machines with no paper trails are in use.

In February, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered that any county planning to replace its voting machines must buy devices that leave a paper trail. He followed up in April by ordering all counties to have such machines by 2020.

More:State officials directing counties to replace voting machines by end of 2019

The Department of State can force the change by decertifying all makes and models of older, paperless machines — and will eventually do so, a spokeswoman said.

Security issues: If the 2020 deadline holds, York County could be using allegedly flawed machines for three more elections.

York County Voting Technology Coordinator Casey Brady removes a circuit board from a non-working voting machine at a storage warehouse in an undisclosed area Thursday, June 7, 2018. He's been in the job for three months. "It's been a lot to pick up pretty quick," he said. He said the county has 624 working machines and 45 which are in need or repair, or used for parts. In April, Gov. Tom Wolf directed all counties to replace machines, like those used in York County, with new voting machines—all offering paper trails—by 2020. Bill Kalina photo

A missing paper trail is just one of the problems with the make and model found in the county's 159 polling places.

The Sequoia AVS Edge voting machine has "significant security weaknesses," according to Verified Voting, a nonprofit organization that advocates for accurate, transparent elections.  

"Every software mechanism for transmitting election results and every software mechanism for updating software lacks reliable measures to detect or prevent tampering," according to a study conducted by researchers at the behest of California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. 

Yet the county hasn't had any issues with the voting machines, other than normal wear and tear, according to Nikki Suchanic, director of York County's Elections and Voter Registration Office. 

York County Elections and Voter Registration Director Nikki Suchanic talks to poll workers about the card activator device during a training session at the Red Lion Area Senior Center in Red in 2015. Dawn J. Sagert photo

There was one issue with the machines last year, but that was a result of a programming error, not tampering, according to county officials.

During the November 2017 municipal elections, the error allowed a single voter to cast multiple votes for the same candidate in races where more than one candidate is elected.  

More:Voting machine glitch causes confusion in county judge, school board races

An independent auditing firm determined the problem didn't affect the outcome of any race, Suchanic said at the time.

"I'm confident in the machines we're using now, but with newer technology it's time for us to look at new voting systems," she said recently. "Hopefully, the federal government and the state find some additional help for us, but we'll find a way." 

Risks: Despite Suchanic's confidence, experts have little trust in the Sequoia AVS Edge. 

The risks associated with York County's machines range in severity — from simple programming errors such as the one the county saw last year to hacking that can change vote counts, according to Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting and former deputy secretary for elections and voting under the Wolf administration.

Marian K. Schneider, president, Verified Voting

For instance, in any precinct voting machines are partnered with a computer that runs the voting software and stores data. If that computer is connected to any network whatsoever, Schneider said, the situation is problematic. 

"If it's connected to anything, it's prone to cyberattacks," she said.

York County's machines are self-contained and aren't connected to any network, Suchanic confirmed.

York County Voting Technology Coordinator Casey Brady talks about the 45 voting machines in disrepair in county elections at a storage warehouse in an undisclosed area Thursday, June 7, 2018. He repairs the machines and uses them for parts. He says the county has 624 working voting machines , background. He's been in the job for three months. "It's been a lot to pick up pretty quick," he said. In April, Gov. Tom Wolf directed all counties to replace machines, like those used in York County, with new voting machines—all offering paper trails—by 2020. Bill Kalina photo

However, even if the computer is not connected, the risk of being hacked is "never zero," Schneider added. With access to machine software, a skilled hacker can still manipulate data.

Preventing such attacks is difficult, even with countermeasures, she said. This is why counties should "shift from prevention to detection and recovery."

"It's not going to be easy," Schneider said. "But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. And taking these precautions will build up voter confidence." 

Pessimism at the polls?: That confidence might have eroded after the 2016 elections, which U.S. intelligence agencies agree were marred by Russian interference.

Wolf's order to upgrade voting machines "followed September's disclosure by the federal government that election systems in at least 21 states, including Pennsylvania, were targeted by hackers before the 2016 presidential election," The Associated Press reported.

"It's important because everybody needs to have confidence in the voting process and given what is alleged to have happened in 2016, I think there's some concern that maybe people aren't as confident as they should be," Wolf said.

Though AP noted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had found no evidence that votes or databases were altered, former Director of National Security James Clapper told PBS Newshour host Judy Woodruff he personally believes Russia swayed the election in Donald Trump's favor.

More:Governors fear for election security amid cyberattacks

That opinion is based in part, he said on the show last month, on the fact that the election turned on 80,000 votes in three states — including Pennsylvania.

"It just exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election, and it’s my belief they actually turned it," Clapper said.

Schneider, the president of Verified Voting, emphasized that the first step in protecting elections is acknowledging that there are serious risks each cycle. 

"It's naïve to think this isn't a risk," she said. "It's not a certainty, but what risk managers do is manage it (to) an acceptable level. Risk can never get down to zero." 

More:Election hacking puts focus on voting machines like York County’s

More:York County officials say overvotes didn't affect election results, but numbers tell different story

Mandate for new voting machines: If the reasons for an upgrade are clear, the funding source is not.

A single voting machine per the requirement of Wolf's mandate would cost roughly $3,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

If York County were to replace all of its machines — 624 in use, 45 in storage — it would cost roughly $2 million. Cost estimates don't include licensing, support and maintenance, transportation and printing.

The federal government reimbursed the county $1.85 million of the $2.1 million it spent on the Sequoia voting machines in 2006.

But that type of help doesn't appear to be on the table this time.

The state received $13.5 million from a federal appropriations bill in March that included $380 million for states to use to enhance election security. 

That is just a small fraction of the overall costs and will be distributed to counties based on the number of registered voters in the respective countries, said Wanda Murren, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.

The amount of money that York County will receive is unknown. 

Gov. Tom Wolf and newly elected Lt. Gov. running mate John Fetterman (not pictured) speak to the media at Manchester Cafe in Manchester Township, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

There are ongoing talks for another round of federal funding — an additional $380 million — said Jacklin Rhoads, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., though she noted it's not yet included in any legislation.

Murren said the upcoming state budget doesn't have any money set aside to help counties make the upgrades, and the Legislature hasn't indicated if it ever will provide aid.

However, the administration is considering "grant opportunities; creative financing options; state, federal and local appropriations; opportunities for partnerships; bonds and more," she said.

Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, confirmed there has been no discussion of state funding for voting machines. 

"We don't have much of an idea how much money will be required for the machines, so the appropriations committee hasn't begun talking about the costs," she said. "The talks will occur when we get a better idea of how much money will be needed in each county." 

More:State officials directing counties to replace voting machines by end of 2019

Still, Phillips-Hill said she supported the replacement of the machines because "technology has come a long way and the public wants to be assured that they vote in the most reliable and safe way."

Funding in the county: The bottom line is York County expects to pony up cash for new voting machines regardless of whether more financial aid might be offered, said Commissioner Chris Reilly. 

"We're going to have to fund it out of a general fund," he said. "However, we're in limbo right now because the state has only certified one machine; we're waiting until more equipment is certified." 

The company with the certified machine is Unisyn Voting Systems, based in California. The company didn't respond to phone calls for comment about the specific model certified by the Department of State. 

According to the department, however, four more vendors are in the process of certification. The time estimate for their approval is unknown.

York County Voting Technology Coordinator Casey Brady stands among the 624 working voting machines used in county elections at a storage warehouse in an undisclosed area Thursday, June 7, 2018. He's been in the job for three months. "It's been a lot to pick up pretty quick," he said. In April, Gov. Tom Wolf directed all counties to replace machines, like those used in York County, with new voting machines—all offering paper trails—by 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Once more machines are certified, vendors will gather and the county will have the public, including poll workers, survey the machines and give their input, Reilly said, adding financing options would be discussed at that point. 

The commissioners, although unenthusiastic about new voting machines, acknowledge the importance of security. 

York County Commissioner Chris Reilly

"I think there's an argument to be made that a paper trail makes sense with all the questions and concerns with questions concerning election security," said Commissioner Doug Hoke. "I just hope there will be more money from the federal and state government, because taxes aren't something we want to dip into."  

Playing with the 2019 budget to generate more money for the anticipated costs will soon be discussed, he added. 

The county has three options: making room in the budget; taking money from the contingency fund, a fund for unexpected expenses that usually hovers around $1 million; or shifting funds from leftover money from the general fund to the capital reserve fund, said Tom Hoover, who manages the budget for the county. 

Election official Tom Hoover pulls a lot from an Utz Potato Chip can to break county write-in election ties Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. It is customary to use the three-pound can in the process at the York County Administrative Building.

While the general fund consists of the main operating costs for the county, the capital reserve fund is dedicated to long-term capital investment projects and other large anticipated expenses. 

With $16 million leftover in the general fund and more than $500,000 in the capital reserve fund as of 2017, Hoover said it'd be "easy" to cover the costs and that the payment wouldn't negatively affect the county.

Still, there's always a chance that things won't be so easy and counties will come up short, right?

Not quite, said Murren. 

"If a county doesn't have the resources to purchase machines, the vendors are very willing to work with the county," she said. "Vendors are very flexible, and we're looking at these flexible options as well as possible additional funding." 

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.

The Department of State is "strongly considering" decertifying the current voting systems before the 2020 primary elections, Murren said.