York County, Pa., Hurries to Replace Voting Machines by Deadline

With just more than a year left to replace the equipment, county officials are under the gun to make the switch — estimated to cost around $8 million.

by Logan Hullinger, The York Dispatch / November 26, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Voting machines in York County, Pa., had few issues in this year's midterm elections, but county officials are still scrambling to replace them ahead of a state deadline just more than a year away.

It's well-documented that, like many others, the county has outdated machines that are vulnerable to hacking. County officials and experts agree the machines need to be replaced — although they cite different reasons — but one aspect remains unknown.

That would be how to pay for the machines, which are now estimated to cost up to $8 million — $6 million more than what was previously estimated based on the costs of the machines alone.

With the deadline to replace the devices looming, at least one county official is bracing for the economic impact, which he said could possibly result in future tax hikes.

But experts say the counties also can't afford not to make the switch.

Security issues: The county currently uses Sequoia AVC Edge voting machines, 700 of which were purchased in 2006 for $2.1 million with help from a $4 billion wave of federal funding provided to states following the disputed 2000 elections.

The machines were high-tech but also lacking an important feature: a paper trail.

Experts say a "voter-verifiable paper audit trail" is crucial to protecting elections from tampering or errors. It allows voters to check that the machine recorded their choices as intended and gives election officials a second record to refer to if there's a dispute.

Pennsylvania is one of just 15 states where machines with no paper trails are in use.

In February, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered that any county planning to replace its voting machines must buy devices that leave a paper trail. He followed up in April by ordering all counties to have such machines by Dec. 31, 2019, preferably by the 2019 general elections.

To enforce the mandate, Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren said the state is "strongly considering" decertifying any county machines that aren't replaced by the deadline.

Under the state Election Code, counties must use voting systems that have been certified by the federal Election Assistance Commission and by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

As a result, if their machines aren't on the new certification list, they can't use the devices. The mandatory upgrade is expected to cost counties around $125 million.

County confidence

York County officials have said although their machines are outdated, they haven't had any issues in regards to the election security.

"Security wise, I have no problem with the ones we have," said Sally Kohlbus, who is acting director of the county Office of Voting and Elections while director Nikki Suchanic is on maternity leave.

Kohlbus said the machines didn't have any issues during the Nov. 6 midterm elections other than a hand-full of machines that wouldn't boot-up and needed to be replaced at the polls.

Previously, Suchanic also said she is confident in the machines, but "with newer technology, it's time for us to look at new voting systems."

Despite the county's confidence, organizations specializing in the matter beg to differ when it comes to security.

The Sequoia AVS Edge voting machine has "significant security weaknesses," according to Verified Voting, a nonprofit organization that advocates for accurate, transparent elections.

'Civic duty'

David Hickton, founder of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, took it upon himself to advocate for more secure machines by creating The Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security in May.

"We have a civic duty to our citizens that elections are safe and secure," he said. "It has been demonstrated we have machines that aren't safe and secure. There has to be some general recognition that we cannot allow ourselves to be this vulnerable."

To prompt change, the commission analyzes elections and drafts suggestions for the state government to address security issues.

After Wolf's mandate, it released a list of recommendations, including replacing vulnerable machines, supplying additional funding to counties along with the federal government support, and carefully selecting vendors.

A final report is expected to be finished by the end of the year and be placed on the governor's desk by February 2019, Hickton said.

The expert said he "isn't aware of any significant problems" with voting machines during the recent midterm elections, but he still emphasized the need to replace them, adding he "sympathizes" with the financial burden counties may face.

"This is a necessary capital expense, but no one wants to leave the burden on the counties or entirely on the state," Hickton said. "We don't have any choice not to do it. Elections are that important."

He added the state has been mostly cooperative with the agency's suggestions and ideas, and Murren said the Department of State is in the process of brainstorming funding options.

But Hickton emphasized the federal government has been "woefully inadequate" in helping fund new voting machines beyond an initial $13.5 million given to the state in March, a piece of the $380 million total supplied to states in the spending package.

The state matched 5 percent of the funds, resulting in $14.1 million total, but that amount will be divided among the 67 counties based on voter population. It is unknown how much York County will receive.

Already in action

Susquehanna County is the only state to have already upgraded their machines, having done so in November before the midterm elections.

The county, with a population of just more than 40,000 and a voting population of roughly 25,000, spent $263,000 on the machines, said SarahRae Sisson, the county's director of voter registration.

The process didn't take long, she said, adding the machines were finalized in early September and implemented just days before Election Day Nov. 6.

Like her York County counterparts, Sisson said she thought the age of the machines was the only compelling factor. But unlike York County, she said the costs didn't present a problem because "it was something we had foreseen."

But York County's road ahead may not be as smooth.

The costs: A single voting machine per the requirement of Wolf's mandate would cost roughly $3,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

With transportation, training and other costs, it would cost York County $6 million to $8 million to replace all of its machines, York County Commissioner Chris Reilly said.

The federal government reimbursed the county $1.85 million of the $2.1 million it spent on the Sequoia voting machines in 2006, but that type of help doesn't appear to be on the table this time.

"It's a pretty complicated process in terms of what our options are," Reilly said. "Frankly, it's not going to be anywhere near what we need. The burden is going to lie with us. I fully anticipate that's the way it's going to go down."

As a result, the county "may very well" have to raise taxes in the future to help relieve the burden, he added.

The county won't be making room in the budget this year for the machines, as it plans to issue a municipal bond once more machines are certified and cost estimates are provided, Reilly said.

Certification process: Murren said the state is making progress certifying the different machines counties will be allowed to purchase.

Currently, a system by Unisyn Voting Solutions is the only machine to be fully certified.

The certification process includes rigorously examining and testing the machines before releasing a final report for certification, Murren said.

An additional two systems, another from Unisyn and one from Election Systems and Software, have successfully completed all testing and the Department of State is in the process of completing the certification report and other paper work, she said.

Additionally, machines from Dominion Voting Systems and ClearBallot have completed the "primary portion" of their examinations, and the state expects them to complete testing by the end of the year.

A sixth system, manufactured by Hart InterCivic Inc., is beginning the certification testing in January.

Once all of the machines are certified, York County will choose a device and figure out how to pay for hundreds of them.

One option is to issue a bond and pay for the devices over time.

The county could also take money from the contingency fund, which is used for unexpected expenses and usually hovers around $1 million, Reilly said.

A third option is shifting leftover money from the general fund to the capital reserve fund, which is dedicated to long-term capital investment projects and other large anticipated expenditures.

More legislative help?

To offer help to counties like York, Sen. Bob Casey has been pushing for more funding. But the Democrat hasn't had any luck, said spokeswoman Jacklin Rhoads.

The senator said it's good that governments are trying to upgrade their systems, adding, "The federal government has a duty to provide resources and funding to help states make these security investments, and I will continue to push for this critical funding.”

Previously, Casey requested another round of $380 million in election security funding, but that has yet to be put into legislation, Rhoads said.

Casey also recently voted for an amendment to the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, that would have appropriated another $250 million for election security grants.

But Republicans largely opposed the bill, and it didn't pass.

Currently, a bill called the Secure Elections Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, is sitting in limbo in Congress because some states thought the bill was "too prescriptive," Rhoads said.

The piece of legislation "would require states to improve election security and authorizes grant funding," she added.

©2018 The York Dispatch (York, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.