Lancaster County’s chief elections official told the Lancaster County Commissioners on Tuesday that he’d like to have new voting machines in place by the November 2019 elections. “I believe that we are far better off deploying this equipment in November of 2019 than waiting until the presidential primary in 2020,” Randall O. Wenger said. That will be possible, he said, as “long as we are able to make a purchase decision in the first half of 2019.” The Pennsylvania Department of State directed counties in April to have “voter-verifiable paper record voting systems” in place no later than Dec. 31, 2019, and preferably ahead of the November 2019 general election. As LNP staff writer Carter Walker reported Wednesday, “Wenger’s timeline would have the equipment purchased by next May, staff trained over that summer and a public demonstration in September 2019.”
If Wenger thinks getting new election machines in time for next year’s elections is doable, then yes, Lancaster County ought to get it done.
Wenger is chief clerk of the Lancaster County Board of Elections and chief registrar of the Lancaster County Registration Commission. His weighty title is fitting, given the burden on him: He is among the county, state and federal officials who must not only ensure that the integrity of our elections is protected but that voters have faith their votes will be counted as cast.
This challenge gets more and more daunting by the day, as the threat of election interference from Russia and other malicious actors grows. On Tuesday, Facebook announced that it had removed 32 Pages and accounts from Facebook and Instagram “because they were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
In a statement, Facebook said some of the activity was consistent with that of the Russian-based Internet Research Agency before and after the 2016 elections. “And we’ve found evidence of some connections between these accounts and IRA accounts we disabled last year.” But, the statement said, “These bad actors have been more careful to cover their tracks.” It noted: “We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics.”
Interference via social media is quite distinct from direct action on voting systems. But there was some of the latter, too, in 2016.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s July 13 indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers said the Russians “attacked the U.S. election infrastructure ... hacking websites and computers that handle voter registration,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
And, as we noted in a July 22 Sunday LNP editorial, Russian hackers searched for vulnerabilities in Pennsylvania’s computer systems in 2016 — it was a preliminary effort targeting our voter registration systems. (No Pennsylvania voter rolls were compromised.)
But the indictments of the Russian intelligence officers revealed that personal information of Illinois voters was stolen in 2016.
All of this — plus Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ warning of “blinking red” lights signaling probable Russian interference in November’s midterm elections — lends a great deal of urgency to the efforts to seal our voting systems against intrusion.
Most of Lancaster County’s voting machines already produce a verifiable paper trail. But our voting machines are 12 years old.
As LNP staff writer Sam Janesch reported in April, Lancaster County “transitioned in 2006 from mechanical lever voting machines to the current system, in which voters fill out paper ballots and then feed them into an electronic optical scanning machine that records the votes.”
The county also has 367 machines that record votes electronically; these are mostly used by voters with disabilities for whom electronic voting is easier.
Twelve years might as well be a thousand when it comes to technology.
Wenger told the commissioners that the new voting equipment should offer:
— Voter-marked paper ballots.
— Paper ballot tabulation in the polling place, rather than central tabulation.
— An American with Disabilities Act-compliant voting component that generates ballots “as similar as possible to voter-marked paper ballots to preserve privacy.”
— A single piece of equipment from which poll workers would print zero tapes (these are printed before polls open, and are posted to show there were no votes on the equipment at opening) and tally tapes (these are printed after the polls close and show the vote totals each candidate received).
— The ability to correctly list cross-nominated candidates.
Wenger’s recommendations are pending approval by the county’s board of elections — perhaps late summer or early fall, he said. We’d urge that board to give its approval as soon as possible.
The total cost for the county is estimated at $3.5 million, but that figure depends on what systems are available and whether they are leased or purchased. Counties will choose from voting systems certified by both the federal Election Assistance Commission and the secretary of the commonwealth.
Vetting the system suppliers is going to be essential if Pennsylvania is to get this process right.
And because so much money is involved, the process will need to be transparent. As county Commissioner Craig Lehman noted Tuesday, Wenger’s list of criteria for new county machines was helpful in that regard.
Moreover, as Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said last month, “any system Pennsylvania may use now and in the future” should be “wholly owned, controlled and managed by a firm with American interests.” He pointed out that an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin is the largest investor in the company that manages Maryland’s voter registration system. Small world, right? (Far too small, in this instance.)
Pennsylvania will get $13.5 million from the federal government to update its voting systems, but Lancaster County is only expected to get about $500,000 of that.
We continue to believe it was a mistake for the U.S. House — Congressman Lloyd Smucker included — to vote against giving states additional money for election system security. Inexplicably, the Senate made the same mistake Wednesday.
Nevertheless, it is imperative that these upgrades be made. Voting must be held as sacred in our democratic republic. We must be able to be confident that the leaders in office are the ones we chose, fair and square, without any outside interference.