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The tech that could change voting in America

It’s been impossible to escape the US presidential election this year. Eye-popping revelations are commonplace, tensions are high, and November 8th is taking its sweet time getting here. To ease our nerves momentarily, let’s focus on one aspect of the election that’s easier to wrap our heads around: the technology of voting.

After the enormous debacle with the Gore-Bush election, a piece of legislation called the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed that was aimed at improving the voting experience across the country. Of course, each state controls its own voting process, so getting all 50 states to conform to specific standards took some real effort. But with the help of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the situation has improved in the last decade and a half.

With that in mind, we wanted to get a sense of the current state of the voting tech, and see where the systems are headed. Unfortunately, the innumerable variations we have in this country make it nearly impossible to get a clear picture of the overall situation, so we decided to narrow our scope a bit by talking to the EAC itself, a small state (Delaware), and a large state (New York). Over the past few weeks, we’ve interviewed Thomas Hicks from the EAC, Elaine Manlove from Delaware’s Department of Elections, and John Conklin from New York’s Board of Elections. Today, we get to share their answers.

EAC

Grant Brunner: What are the biggest changes in voting tech since the EAC was formed, and the Help America Vote Act began to be implemented?

Thomas Hicks: Since the Help America Vote Act of 2002 much has changed. New technology has been introduced including:

Voter expectations have evolved to include more expectations of transparency, convenience, speed, security, usability, and accessibility.

GB: What do you consider the biggest threat to the integrity of the electronic voting process, and what can the EAC and the individual states do to combat the most glaring issues?

TH: Lack of adequate resources (in some jurisdictions) to update end-of-life voting systems and to properly maintain those systems currently in the field. Election officials constantly meet the challenge of doing more with less, and this year is no exception.

The EAC is here to assist states with best practices and other aspects to improve the election process. We understand that there are a number of priorities for states to fund and elections are important and need to be adequately funded.

Security is always a concern and the EAC has been active in working with our partners at NIST, DHS, FBI and DOJ to provide as much information as possible to election officials over the past year.

Votes

GB: Unfortunately, not all states require that their voting machines be tested federally. How can the readers find out if the voting system that they’re using has been tested and certified by the EAC?

GB: What kind of technical solutions exist now to help people with various types of disabilities? What has the uptake been like for those solutions across the country?

TH: The current generation of voting systems is more usable and accessible than ever. System manufacturers continue to meet the specific accessibility requirements contained in the EAC VVSG (Voluntary Voting System Guidelines), and continue working on secure ways for voters to participate in the process using computer assisted means. See Section 3 of VVSG starting on page 41.

Depending on the type of system, voters with disabilities may use headphones or other assistive devices to help them vote independently and secretly. These include sip-and-puff devices, jelly switches and others. HAVA provides that voters with disabilities be allowed to vote independently and privately. The next iteration of the VVSG will still incorporate those functions in the law.

GB: Voting through the mail has started to take off in some states, and that has me thinking about how that idea translates to online voting. Provided that states start moving in that direction in the future, what can the EAC do to help ensure secure and valid online voting?

TH: The EAC is currently working with NIST to develop the next generation of voting system standards.

The TGDC has not yet made a formal determination on the status of requirements for voting over the internet. Further discussions will be had next year, but given the current security concerns, it is unlikely that the TGDC will recommend internet voting as a specific option.

That said, we will work with states to share best practices on in all types of telecommunications security. Depending on your state there may be other options on casting about it on or before Election Day and voters should consider all methods.

GB: What does the future of voting tech look like to you?

TH: Great question. We will likely know more over the next several months, but whatever the implementation of voting technology, it will need to be at least as secure, accessible, usable, accurate and reliable as the current technology.

We will continue to see  an increase in commercial off-the-shelf devices, and the need to provide voters with as many options for voting as possible. Some of the seminal work in the area of what technology voters and poll workers are seeking has been done by Los Angeles County with the Voting System Assessment Project (VSAP).

GB: Is there anything else about the development, implementation, voting, or tallying process that you think the readers should know about?

TH: Given all the media coverage of the security concerns, we feel it is important to reiterate that voting will be safe and secure on November 8th. One of the most comprehensive responses was provided by Florida election officials.

Delaware Flag

Grant Brunner: Can you tell us a bit about who you are, and what you do at the Department of Elections?

Elaine Manlove: I have been the State Election Commissioner since 2007. Before that I was Director of the Dept. of Elections for New Castle County for 8 years. In Delaware, Elections do not come under the Secretary of State, so I am the chief election official.

GB: Since I’ve been voting, Delaware’s voting machines haven’t changed much. Have there been any behind-the-scenes changes that make the voting/tallying process easier and more secure?

EM: Delaware’s machines have been the same since 1995. After Help America Vote Act, we added headsets for the visually impaired to “hear” the ballot and use a hand control to vote.

We are secure since nothing is connected to the internet. Cartridges are pulled from each voting machine and transported to a zone where the results are read by a cartridge reader. All zones are within the state’s firewall. Results reside on the state’s mainframe and are then sent to the internet for display on our website.

While the current voting machines have served us well since 1995, we changed our absentee voting to central count optical scan several years ago. Before that, we had sent absentee ballots to the polling place to be hand counted.

GB: Are there specific benefits or challenges to implementing voting tech in a small state like Delaware?

EM: I think the small size of Delaware makes change easier. We have implemented e-signature in both DMV and Health and Social Services giving us real-time connectivity for voter registration within those agencies. We have also implemented online voter registration. Having to deal with only 3 counties certainly seems easier than dealing with 60 or 70 counties like larger states.

GB: If the state eventually decides to implement the likes of online voting, is there a plan in place for implementing and securing new methods of voting, or is that something that can only happen once legislation is passed?

EM: Legislation was passed last year to implement a Voting Machine Task Force. Our voting machines are reaching the end of their lifecycle. The task force will review voting equipment and make a decision that works for Delaware residents.

New York Flag

Grant Brunner: Please tell us about who you are, and what you do at the Board of Elections.

John Conklin: I am the Public Information Director at the State Board of Elections. I have been here since January 2009. I am responsible for all inquiries from the general public, candidates and the press. I am also the records access officer for Freedom of Information requests and I am the head of the National Voter Registration Unit which monitors the Motor Voter law.

GB: Since New York switched to electronic voting machines, what kind of changes have been implemented to make voting easier and more secure?

JC: New York uses precinct-based optical scan machines with paper ballots. The paper ballots are very easy to fill out and place in the scanner. The scanners have redundant memory devices which are encrypted. The machines are secured with tamper-evident seals. Random audits are performed after each election. Lastly, we have the paper ballots as a failsafe to ensure accurate results.

From a security standpoint, the scanners are not networked to the Internet or each other. None of the tabulation of results is done through the Internet. The memory devices are physically brought to a central location for tabulating. New York previously used mechanical lever machines. It is hard to say if they are more or less secure than our current machines. They were replaced more so because they were not disability accessible and the EAC declared they could not meet the accuracy requirements of HAVA.

GB: New York law doesn’t require that voting machines be tested and certified by the federal government or an accredited lab, but it does require that the machines be tested to federal standards, right? How does the board of elections ensure that voting machines work as intended, and aren’t vulnerable to manipulation?

JC: In accord with state regulations, “All laboratory testing shall be conducted or verified by independent testing authorities appropriately certified by the National Association of State Election Directors, the EAC or approved by the commissioners of the State Board.” We currently use SLI Global Solutions of Denver, which provides testing under the auspices of the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP Lab Code 200733-0: TESTING) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in partnership with the United States Election Assistance Commission.

SLI is an accredited Voting System Test Laboratory. The voting system must meet the Election Assistance Commission’s 2005 Voluntary Voting System Guidelines and shall have been approved by the U.S. Government’s Crypto Module Validation Program (CMVP) as applicable. Each county follows security procedures developed by the State Board. The performance of logic and accuracy tests is required before each election pursuant to formulas and procedures developed by the SBOE ensuring proper ballot configuration and consistently accurate vote counts for all offices and uniformity throughout the state.

NY

GB: I’m from Delaware – a small state that’s relatively quick about moving to new tech in general. In contrast, New York is a much larger state both geographically and in terms of population. Are there any particular benefits or challenges related to implementing voting tech in a big state like yours?

JC: New York was the last state to implement the new voting systems required by the Help America Vote Act, but we like to think that we did it best. Other states are replacing the machines that were purchased back in 2003-2005 because they are susceptible to hacking, don’t provide a sufficient voter verifiable paper audit trail, or are having other troubles.

GB: If New York decides to implement online voting at some point down the road, is there a plan for how to implement a secure system? Or is that something that can only be tackled once legislation is passed?

JC: I don’t see any state using online voting any time soon. It has not been proven safe or secure. It certainly is not in our plans. It would require legislation and at this point unless the federal government provided money forcing the state in another direction, like it did with HAVA, I don’t see our legislature moving in that direction. Especially in the current climate where concerns over cyber security and hacking have skyrocketed.

GB: What solutions does New York have in place to help people with disabilities vote?

JC: The scanners for both vendors have a ballot marking function or separate ballot marking machine to assist voters with special needs. They are equipped with audio voting features for the visually impaired, tactile discernible controls for limited reach and or hand dexterity, raised buttons in vivid shapes and colors, large raised numbers and letters and pneumatic light pressure switches.

GB: Have any impressive stats to share with the readers?

JC: Elections in New York are run at the county level. We have about 16,000 precincts spread across 62 counties. As one of the most diverse states in the nation, we have small rural counties like Hamilton and Yates to suburban giants like Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester to New York City which accounts for approximately half of the voting population of the state.

With that varied level of sophistication and resources we’ve managed to process more than 7 million people at the last presidential election.

Note: These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

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