In Va., a re­turn to pa­per bal­lots

HACK­ING THREAT­ENS VOT­ING MA­CHINES All votes cast statewide Nov. 7 to be scanned

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY PA­TRI­CIA SUL­LI­VAN

The re­turn of pa­per bal­lots for all Vir­ginia vot­ers, a process be­gun a decade ago and ac­cel­er­ated by the threat of hacks of com­put­er­ized vot­ing ma­chines, has kicked into high gear a month be­fore the next state elec­tion.

Edgardo Cortés, Vir­ginia’s com­mis­sioner of elec­tions, said last week that all of the com­mon­wealth’s cities, towns and coun­ties will use pa­per bal­lots and elec­tronic scan­ners on Nov. 7, en­sur­ing vot­ing and tab­u­la­tion are se­cure.

“The is­sue here is not whether it’s hack­able or not,” Cortés said in an in­ter­view. “The is­sue is if you end up with some kind of ques­tion, you have those pa­per bal­lots you can go back to.” The dan­ger is not the­o­ret­i­cal. The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity last month no­ti­fied Vir­ginia and 20 other states about Rus­sian ef­forts to hack their elec­tion sys­tems in 2016.

On Wed­nes­day, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chair­man of the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, told re­porters he was con­cerned Rus­sians con­tinue to try to in­ter­fere with U.S. bal­lot­ing,

es­pe­cially in swing states such as Vir­ginia.

“To make a change, even on the na­tional level, doesn’t re­quire pen­e­tra­tion into 50 states,” Warner said. “. . . You could pick two or three states in two or three ju­ris­dic­tions and al­ter an elec­tion.”

“A state like mine, in Vir­ginia, and in New Jersey, in 34 days, we have an elec­tion,” Warner said, not­ing DHS has pledged to of­fer ad­di­tional as­sis­tance to the two states with gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions in Novem­ber.

Cortés said Rus­sians never pen­e­trated Vir­ginia’s data­bases last year and only scanned some of the state’s “pub­lic-fac­ing” web­sites, look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties or er­rors.

The state re­ported those for­ays to the FBI at the time.

In July, at the De­fCon hack­ing con­fer­ence, pro­gram­mers suc­cess­fully in­vaded 30 Di­rect Record Elec­tronic (DRE) touch­screen ma­chines, in­clud­ing some iden­ti­cal to those in use in Vir­ginia, within 90 min­utes.

The hack­ers then posted how they broke in and posted pass­words that would al­low copy­cats to mimic their ac­tions.

In re­sponse, the state Board of Elec­tions de­cer­ti­fied the touch­screen ma­chines in Septem­ber, re­quir­ing 23 cities and coun­ties that use them — in­clud­ing Falls Church and Alexan­dria — to ac­quire new vot­ing equip­ment in a tight time frame.

The af­fected lo­cal­i­ties serve 140 of the state’s 2,439 vot­ing precincts, or about 190,000 of the state’s 5 mil­lion ac­tive vot­ers.

David Bjerke, the Falls Church reg­is­trar, said he spent about $150,000 for the new equip­ment. Anna Lei­der, Alexan­dria’s reg­is­trar, said that city will spend about $594,000, money that had been in next year’s bud­get.

The cost of re­plac­ing the sys­tems is borne by lo­cal gov­ern­ments, and many of the com­mu­ni­ties that were us­ing touch­screen ma­chines are in poor, ru­ral ar­eas. Cortés said his of­fice worked to ar­range pay­ments they could af­ford.

Pa­per bal­lots, once marked with a voter’s choices, will be in­serted into an elec­tronic scan­ner that will record the votes. The bal­lot it­self will be re­tained if it’s needed for a re­count.

The scan­ner prints out a re­sults tape and records the to­tals on a se­cure thumb drive, which goes to the lo­cal elec­tion head­quar­ters for the of­fi­cial can­vass, or count, the next day.

Elec­tion of­fi­cials em­pha­sized no equip­ment is con­nected to the In­ter­net, and even regis­tra­tion ros­ters known as poll books, typ­i­cally kept on stand-alone lap­tops, are backed up with pa­per print­outs.

The change to a pa­per-based bal­lot sys­tem will make Vir­ginia’s process “one of the very best” in the coun­try, said Bar­bara Si­mons, pres­i­dent of the non­par­ti­san Ver­i­fied Vot­ing.

“In far too much of the coun­try, peo­ple are vot­ing on in­se­cure ma­chines,” said Si­mons, who has writ­ten a book about elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines and whose work led to the can­cel­la­tion of a De­fense Depart­ment In­ter­net vot­ing project. “The very idea that a lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cer with­out enough money or tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise would be able to pro­tect these ma­chines is ab­surd.”

Ac­tivists con­cerned about the lack of a pa­per trail in elec­tronic vot­ing per­suaded the Gen­eral Assem­bly in 2007 to pro­hibit lo­cal reg­is­trars from re­plac­ing elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines with other elec­tronic ma­chines and in­stead re­turn to pa­per bal­lot­ing.

The dead­line for com­plet­ing that tran­si­tion was sup­posed to be July 1, 2020.

That tran­si­tion ac­cel­er­ated in 2015 when hun­dreds of WINVote ma­chines were de­cer­ti­fied af­ter vot­ers, in­clud­ing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), com­plained they had trou­ble cast­ing bal­lots.

The WINVote ma­chines, which were prone to crash­ing and vul­ner­a­ble to cy­ber­at­tacks, were dubbed “Amer­ica’s worst vot­ing ma­chines” by Wired magazine, in part be­cause of poorly se­cured WiFi fea­tures used to tally votes.

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