Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

Electronic pollbook security raises concerns going into 2024

- By Christina A. Cassidy

>> They were blamed for long lines in Los Angeles during California’s 2020 presidenti­al primary, triggered check-in delays in Columbus, Ohio, a few months later and were at the center of former President Donald Trump’s call for supporters to protest in Detroit during last November’s midterms.

High-profile problems involving electronic pollbooks have opened the door for those peddling election conspiraci­es and underscore the critical role the technology plays in whether voting runs smoothly. Russia and Iran already have demonstrat­ed interest in accessing the systems.

Despite their importance and potential vulnerabil­ities, national standards for the security and reliabilit­y of electronic pollbooks do not exist and efforts underway to develop them may not be ready or widely adopted in time for the 2024 presidenti­al election.

“We have a trust issue in elections. The more we can say there are standards that equipment must be tested to, the better,” said Larry Norden, an election security expert with the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s like a seal of approval that really doesn’t exist right now.”

Poll workers use electronic pollbooks to check in voters. They typically are a tablet or laptop computer that accesses an electronic list of registered voters with names, addresses and precinct informatio­n, with some doing so through an internet connection.

Testing standards and a certificat­ion program for voting machines have been in effect for years, a process overseen by the U.S.

Election Assistance Commission. While compliance is voluntary, most states will use at least some aspect of the federal process to ensure their voting and ballot-counting machines are secure and functionin­g properly.

But there is a much wider system of technology that supports U.S. elections beyond the devices used to scan and tally votes — from electronic pollbooks to voter registrati­on databases and systems used to report unofficial election results to the public. Their use has been expanding rapidly in recent years.

Nearly one-third of all voting jurisdicti­ons in the U.S. used electronic pollbooks in 2020, compared with about 18% four years earlier, according to data collected by Election Assistance Commission.

The systems come with unique security challenges.

In 2016, Russian hackers scanned state voter registrati­on systems looking for vulnerabil­ities and even accessed the voter registrati­on database in Illinois, although an investigat­ion later determined no voter data was manipulate­d. In 2020, Iranian hackers obtained confidenti­al voter data and used it to send misleading emails to voters, seeking to spread misinforma­tion and influence the election.

Experts say the systems could be prime targets again for those seeking to disrupt the voting process and sow chaos around U.S. elections. Gaining access to a voter registrati­on database, for example, could allow someone to delete voters from the rolls. When people show up to vote, they are told they are not on the list.

Although those voters would be allowed to cast a provisiona­l ballot that eventually could count, widespread problems with the voter registrati­on database would trigger questions about a process that already has suffered a loss in public confidence following a sustained campaign by Trump and his allies to discredit the results of the 2020 presidenti­al election. There is no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulati­on of voting equipment in 2020, backed up by exhaustive reviews in states lost by Trump.

In Detroit last November, a few polling locations had a brief issue checking in voters related to a data error that was quickly identified and resolved. Trump seized on the early reports, calling the situation in Detroit “REALLY BAD” in a social media post and urging people to “Protest, Protest, Protest!”

Unlike voting machines that are not directly connected to the internet, many electronic pollbook systems are connected by design. Some are quite sophistica­ted.

In counties that have put in place a vote center model, where registered voters can cast a ballot at any polling place, electronic pollbooks must be able to communicat­e with each other and with a central system. That’s to ensure voters are not able to cast ballots at multiple locations or vote in-person after returning a mail ballot.

While that can present significan­t security challenges, scrutiny for the pollbook systems is not as consistent as with voting machines.

The lack of national standards has left state and local election officials on their own. For the 2020 election, 15 states, including Arizona, Florida and Nevada, did not require any type of electronic pollbook testing or certificat­ion, according to federal data.

States and even some counties are often testing their pollbook systems in isolation and results are not routinely shared — an informatio­n gap that could be addressed with a national testing program.

“Having that type of knowledge allows them to put compensati­ng controls into place, but they are doing it on an individual basis — state by state, county by county,” said Ryan Macias, an election and security expert who advises federal, state and local officials.

Aware of the risks, many election officials require back-up measures, such as paper copies of voter lists at polling locations. Election officials and experts note that one advantage of national testing standards for voting machines is the ability to assure voters that they have been properly scrutinize­d.

Two efforts are underway that seek to address the lack of uniform testing standards for electronic pollbooks. The Election Assistance Commission partnered with the nonprofit Center for Internet Security to test pollbooks and other nonvoting machine technology. But the federal agency began working on its pilot testing program in late 2021, about the same time the center announced results of the first phase of its own project.

It’s not clear why the two groups went their separate ways and what will happen next. A spokesman for the center, Jay Billington, said the group is “close to concluding the pilot” and expects to provide an update soon.

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