Expert Vouches for Northampton County, Pa., Voting Machines

As Northampton County, Pa., leadership weigh security concerns related to new voting machines, a nationally-recognized expert in the technology says this particular system is not a cause for worry.

by Tom Shortell, The Morning Call / May 6, 2019

(TNS) — Last month, Northampton County, Pa., council held off buying voting machines after members of the county election commission raised concerns about the devices about to be purchased.

But a nationally recognized voting machine expert told The Morning Call that the machines — which were based on a system he designed — should not pose a security concern.

Juan Gilbert, chairman of the department of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida, was part of a committee of experts and academics that wrote "Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy" for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report warned that intrusions by foreign powers have exposed weaknesses in America's voting systems and recommended that all voting methods produce a paper trail that can be read and audited.

For more than a decade, dozens of counties across Pennsylvania, including Lehigh and Northampton, relied on voting systems where votes were cast on machines and saved electronically. While the machines are not connected to the internet and are difficult to hack, the devices leave voters with no way to know if their votes are being recorded correctly. Just as bad, if a machine malfunctioned, hundreds or thousands of votes could potentially be lost, Gilbert said; that happened in Florida in November, according to The New York Times.

"Our No. 1 priority is you need a paper ballot. Given the current state of technology, there is no way to secure a digital ballot," Gilbert said.

In Northampton County, the election commission voted 3-2 for Election System and Software's ExpressVote XL, a system where each voter selects candidates on a touch screen. Once they're done, the machine prints a copy of their ballot for the voter to review. If the paper receipt matches their intent, the voter presses a button to record the vote, and the paper receipt is secured in the machine for a future audit.

Kathy Fox, a member of the election commission who voted against the machine, raised concerns about the system's security at Northampton County Council's April 18 meeting. The paper receipts list the voter's selected candidates, but the system reads the receipts through a bar code printed at the top, she said. Since humans cannot read bar codes, voters cannot be certain the bar code matches their actual vote, she said.

"Programming errors, malfunctions and hacking could change what the voters selected, and they would never know," Fox said.

After Fox, fellow election commission member Debbie Hunter and others raised concerns about the selection process and the ExpressVote XL security, council delayed its decision on the $2.9 million voting machine contract until May 16, after Delaware uses ExpressVote XL machines in its state primary races.

But Gilbert said county officials would discover if there were a problem if they do a thorough audit of the voting system, which is the point of switching voting machines. If bar codes don't match what's been printed on the receipts, election officials will be able to tell.

If anything, he said, devices like the ExpressVote XL are more secure than paper ballots. If a voter doesn't like the candidates in a race and leaves the slot blank, an unscrupulous vote counter could fill in the ballot during the audit process. Unless the corrupt official was caught red-handed or on film, there would be no way to prove the fraud, Gilbert said.

"If I looked at hand-marked paper ballots, ballot marking devices [like the ExpressVote XL] have a slight edge. But you have got to do an audit," he said.

The ExpressVote XL system mimics the Prime III voting machine Gilbert invented, which is used in New Hampshire. Gilbert didn't patent his machine, hoping that others would borrow the security features he used. The ExpressVote XL was created by the company Elections Systems and Software, which added proprietary software and designs, Gilbert said.

Experts began focusing on the need for a paper trail after the 2016 election cycle, when Russian hackers tried to break into voter databases in several states, including Pennsylvania. In February 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order mandating all counties have election systems featuring a paper trail by the 2020 presidential election cycle.

In Lehigh County, officials unanimously voted to go with a paper ballot system. Voters will scan their selections into an optical reader, which will quickly count the results. The paper ballots are kept by election officials so the results can be audited.

Can County Council Refuse to Purchase the Voting Machines?

While County Council postponed its decision about the voting machine contract, it's unclear if it has the legal authority to reject the election commission's decision. State law empowers boards of elections to buy voting devices and equip polling places as they sees fit, so long as the items have been certified by the state.

Northampton County has a home rule charter, which means it operates with a different system of government than most counties, but the charter says the election commission serves the same role as a board of elections. In Lehigh County, which operates under a similar home rule charter, the board of elections makes the final decision, and county commissioners do not need to approve equipment purchases.

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure said his administration believes council does not have the authority to reject the purchase of the machines. However, he acknowledged the charter empowers council with oversight of the budget and the right to approve or reject most contracts over $100,000. There is no clear answer on the matter until a judge weighs in, he said, but he hoped county officials could resolve the matter without going to court.

"This isn't settled law," McClure said.

Christopher Spadoni, council's solicitor, said no one on council has asked him to offer a legal opinion on whether council can legally reject the voting machine contract. When asked if council had that ability, he declined to comment other than to say he has researched the matter.

"I have my ducks in a row," he said.

©2019 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.