FILE PHOTO: Chief clerk Joellen Sohn and Voter Registration Office Director Michael Anderson file absentee ballots in their appropriate precinct. (Photo: John Latimer, Lebanon Daily News)
(Undated) — Cyber security specialists at the University of Pittsburgh have formed an independent panel to study ways to protect Pennsylvania’s voting system from foreign hacking.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security includes experts, reform advocates, and present and former government officials. It held its first meeting June 26th.
David Hickton, a former U.S. Attorney and founding director of the Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, co-chairs the panel.
He said in an interview the commission plans to examine the state’s election machinery, its voter rolls, and the system’s resiliency in the event of an attack.
Hickton said the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed the state’s voter rolls were penetrated by hackers in 2016.
“Adversaries frequently park in your system so that they can take action,” Hickton said, “and you don’t always they’re there, and you don’t always known what they’re doing.”
Hickton said he isn’t sure whether the state’s electronic voter data base needs to be replaced, but believes there are steps that can make it more secure.
FILE PHOTO: Voters fill out their ballots at the Multnomah County Elections Office in Portland, Ore. On May 17, 2016 Oregonians will vote in the state’s presidential primary and the Republican and Democratic candidates have begun building local campaign operations. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka, File)
A bigger, or at least more expensive problem is the vulnerability of the state’s voting machines, nearly all of which don’t generate a paper backup of votes that can be audited.
The lack of a paper trail is one big reason the state’s voting systems earned a grade of “D” in a February review of election security in all 50 states by the Center for American Democracy.
Voting systems are purchased and managed by each of the state’s 67 counties, and they’re limited to vendors and systems approved by the Pennsylvania Department of State as well as the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Lisa Deeley chairs the Philadelphia City Commissioners, which manages the state’s largest voting system. She said in a phone interview the commission hopes to get new voting machines in place by the 2020 election. But it won’t be easy.
The commission has to choose a technology, buy roughly 4,000 machines, then train the commission staff as well as the thousands of neighborhood officials and volunteers who run the city’s polling places.
“There are technical issues, procurement issues, budget issues, and training issues,” Deeley said. “We’re doing everything we can to get this done by 2020, but a lot is out of our control,” she said.
An example is the fact that currently, only one voting machine vendor whose machines generate paper backup (a requirement of an executive order from the governor) is approved for use by state officials.
Pennsylvania Department of State spokeswoman Ellen Lyon confirmed that’s the case, but said the department is reviewing other vendors and expects to have several approved by the end of the year.
Counties are also struggling with the cost of replacing machines, which will likely be tens of millions of dollars in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Hickton said that’s a challenge officials simply must meet.
“I think we can find creative ways between cost sharing arrangements and public-private partnerships to fund what we need to do,” he said. “If we cannot afford to democracy in this country, we have a real problem.”