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Is your vote safe? Penn State panel casts doubts, but county elections chief says not to worry

Posted 11/8/17

By Dan Miller

A Nov. 1 forum on election security at Penn State Harrisburg raised concerns about the vulnerability of voting systems nationally and in Pennsylvania …

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Is your vote safe? Penn State panel casts doubts, but county elections chief says not to worry


By Dan Miller

A Nov. 1 forum on election security at Penn State Harrisburg raised concerns about the vulnerability of voting systems nationally and in Pennsylvania to cyber attack.

But Dauphin County voters shouldn’t be worried, county Director of Elections and Voter Registration Jerry Feaser tells the Press & Journal.

The voting system that Dauphin County has used since 1985 is not connected to the Internet, and neither is the system that the county uses to program the cartridges for the voting machines, said Feaser.

“I could drop one of our voting machines off in the middle of Red Square in Moscow and the Russians couldn’t hack into (it) unless they used an ax,” he said.

Marian Schneider, a former special adviser to Gov. Tom Wolf on election policy and one of three speakers at the Penn State Harrisburg event, said it is “irrelevant” whether Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election actually altered the outcome in any way.

She quoted former FBI Director John Comey saying that the Russians “will be back, and they will be bolder.”

“If you conclude that they had some success with the election last year, they may embolden other actors, whether nation-state attackers or within the United States,” said Schneider, who was deputy secretary for elections and administration in the Pennsylvania Department of State from 2015 to 2017. “I think this is the new normal in elections and the Russian effort shows us what could possibly happen.

“You have to defend against that. Regardless of whether anything happened in 2016, now you have to change the way you do business to deal with that reality.”

Most of the voting systems in Pennsylvania’s 67 counties — including Dauphin County — are ill-prepared for that new reality, she contended.

“Eighty-three percent of Pennsylvania voters vote on systems that if there was an attack and there was a discrepancy, you would not be able to respond adequately,” Schneider said. “You can’t audit them. There’s no paper record (to) verify the electronic tally. That’s what a resilient system is. You have a paper record and there’s an attack, people can still vote. You can check the electronic tally and if it’s wrong you can correct it based on the voter marked paper ballot.”

She includes Dauphin County residents in the 83 percent of voters in Pennsylvania who do not vote on a “resilient” system, Schneider said.

Feaser said an “authorized audit” can be done of the Dauphin County system, but the results are “randomized” so direct comparisons concerning how a specific voter voted using the county system aren’t possible.

But the machine tallies are “unquestioned,” Feaser said. 

The 2000 election pointed out the shortcomings of people interpreting paper ballot results, he noted. 

Machines such as the ones Dauphin County uses “have no emotion,” Feaser said. “If the voter pushes that button, that’s the button that lights up. We test every machine for logic and accuracy before we seal it and send it out to the polls.”

Schneider countered that even if voters don’t need to be concerned from a security standpoint, many of the county systems in Pennsylvania are running on outdated technology, she told the Press & Journal after the forum. “Just look at the age of the system. It’s time for them to be replaced.”

But financial resources vary widely from county to county, Schneider added. Elections are “woefully underfunded” and the changes she said are needed at the county level won’t happen without more money coming from both state and federal governments.

Feaser said a new county voting system would mean an investment of $5 million to $10 million that he suggests would be unnecessary when the existing system doesn’t have any problems.

“Our machines have multiple layers of checks that poll workers go through verifying to ensure the machines haven’t been tampered with prior to opening them on Election Day,” Feaser said in an emailed statement. “The system we are using is basically the same that voters have been using since 1985 and no one has questioned the veracity of our results and whether or not the voters’ voices are being reflected properly.”

Schneider was just named new president of the Verified Voting Foundation, after having served as Wolf’s special adviser on election policy from May to October 2017.

Of the two other speakers at the forum, David Jefferson is on the Verified Voting board of directors, and Candice Hoke is on the group’s board of advisers, according to

Feaser in his emailed statement contended that the board of directors of represents the manufacturers of voting systems.

“Sounds to me like a group of folks who might be interested in forcing counties to change voting systems so their benefactors can sell new machines,” Feaser told the Press & Journal.

Schneider responded by saying that the board of directors and advisers of includes “no representatives” from companies that sell voting machines.

Both boards mostly consist of people from the information technology sector, and “some election officials,” Schneider said. “I would flat out deny any pecuniary interest at all in this. The mission of is to make sure that voters, candidates, the public and the press can all have confidence in the election results.

“Rather than profiting from this, these people have sacrificed their time, energy and effort to advance this issue,” she added of the group’s board of directors and advisers.

Jefferson is a visiting computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who told the Penn State Harrisburg audience that he has been studying election security for about 20 years.

Jefferson focused on Internet voting, which has been adopted on a limited basis by some states. A bill that would adopt Internet voting on a limited basis in Pennsylvania has been introduced in the Legislature, he said.

However, Jefferson considers Internet voting “a terrible idea.”

“It is not possible with any current or foreseeable technology to adequately secure an online election from cyber attacks, not now, not in the foreseeable future. Maybe someday.”

Jefferson also called email voting “the most dangerous form of voting I think ever devised” because of the lack of security. He equated voting by email to attaching a $100 bill to a postcard, putting it in the mail, and expecting it to arrive “unmolested.”

According to Hoke, more than 80 percent of voters in the United States “are still voting on the worst, most insecure voting systems that are deployed nationally.”

A cyber attack of an election that takes place in November may not be discovered until February or March, she said.

“Do we have laws or procedures to allow us to turn back the clock after people have been sworn into office? You know what the answer is — we don’t,” she said. “We are sitting ducks” and election officials “know it.”

Given the lack of resources at the county level, Hoke proposed that information technology professionals from the private sector donate their time to help individual counties be better prepared against a cyber attack on their voting systems, in the same way that lawyers donate their services pro bono.