OP-ED: Pennsylvania's roadmap to protect elections

Marian Schneider
Verified Voting

Pennsylvania can no longer ignore threats to the security of its election system — nor does it have to.

There is a clear path forward to protecting elections thanks to recommendations from the bipartisan PittCyber Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security, but it will require swift action on the part of legislators.

In the 2018 midterms, more than 80 percent of Pennsylvania voters voted on insecure, paperless electronic voting machines — also known as direct recording electronic (DRE) systems.

Computer scientists and cybersecurity experts agree that these machines present a clear security threat because, in part, they do not provide a paper ballot back-up, making it impossible for election officials to verify the results.

Months before the election, the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended all counties replace DREs with voting systems using voter-marked paper ballots, marked either by hand or by machine, as soon as possible and before the 2020 election.

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This recommendation came after Gov. Tom Wolf issued a directive to replace insecure and unverifiable electronic voting machines with ones that have a paper ballot or record of votes cast. The governor called the move an “important step to strengthen the accuracy of our voting system,” and called on the federal government to provide much-needed resources.

But Pennsylvania cannot rely on the federal government alone to fully fund this effort.

Replacing aging and vulnerable electronic voting machines and implementing the commission’s recommendations will require a coordinated effort by the governor, the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the federal government.

Given the threat of hacking and other cyberattacks, replacing Pennsylvania’s current systems is necessary to safeguard elections and strengthen our democracy.

Legislators now have a roadmap to help counties purchase electronic voting systems with paper ballots and implement mandatory post-election audits which includes considering bond issuances.

First, the Department of State should decertify all DRE systems by the end of this year, if not sooner. Virginia decertified its remaining DRE systems in September 2017 after concluding that they were too insecure. The state originally had a deadline of 2020 to do so, but sped up its timeline and completed the decertification process before that November’s election, showing other states it is possible to do so in a timely manner.

The only system that should be certified are ones that tabulate voter-marked paper ballots, which are retained for recounts and audits. Pennsylvania came close to needing a recount in last March’s razor thin close 18th District special election. If that race were tied, a recount or an audit would have been out of the question as the current voting infrastructure would not have allowed it.

Because no paper record of the voters’ choices exist, those systems lack a way to check that the reported results are accurate.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly should also require transparent risk-limiting audits (RLAs) for every election. These audits, which provide a statistically-sound method that the reported vote tallies in an election are correct, are already used in states like Colorado, New Mexico and most recently in Rhode Island. If implemented, these recommendations will allow Pennsylvania to be better prepared to manage the cyber threats that targeted the state in the past — and anticipate those of the future.

Replacing voting systems in 50 counties and implementing the commission’s recommendations comes at a cost — one that pales in comparison to the cost of leaving our elections vulnerable.

Gov. Wolf, along with the general assembly and Pennsylvania counties, should explore creative financing mechanisms to help counties fund the cost of replacing systems. Pennsylvania needs to recognize what other states and security experts already do: Protecting our elections is a national security issue. It is also an issue that has clear solutions. 

Gov. Wolf should heed the recommendations laid out by the Blue Ribbon Commission and work to provide funding for these solutions, namely by requiring robust post-election audits and voter-marked paper ballots.

That’s not all. There are other ways to prepare, like revising the Pennsylvania Election Code to include an emergency plan and providing proper cybersecurity awareness training to all election officials.

Voters in the Commonwealth deserve a resilient voting system. They also deserve to know their elected officials are doing everything they can to safeguard elections.

— Marian K. Schneider is the president of Verified Voting. She is a member of The Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security.