ShareThis Page

Election officials: Voting machines 'extensively' tested, can't be hacked

Aaron Aupperlee
| Monday, Aug. 22, 2016, 10:51 p.m.
Voting machine coordinators Barb Harkins and Mark Lamberger work through a calibration screen on voting machines in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Voting machine coordinators Barb Harkins and Mark Lamberger work through a calibration screen on voting machines in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Voting machines that will be used for the November election are stored in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Voting machines that will be used for the November election are stored in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Voting machines that will be used for the November elections are stored in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Voting machines that will be used for the November elections are stored in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Voting machines that will be used for the November election are stored in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Voting machines that will be used for the November election are stored in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Voting machines that will be used for the November election are stored in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Voting machines that will be used for the November election are stored in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday Aug. 22, 2016.
Voting machine coordinator Barb Harkins works through a calibration screen on voting machines in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Voting machine coordinator Barb Harkins works through a calibration screen on voting machines in an Allegheny County warehouse in Manchester on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.

More than 4,600 electronic voting machines were idle Monday, locked in a warehouse in Pittsburgh's North Side.

Surveillance cameras monitor the doors. The 10-year-old machines stretch across the warehouse in rows arranged in military-type precision. There are 2,500 machines in one room and 2,100 in another.

Starting in the next few weeks and running past Election Day, the machines will undergo tests to ensure they are recording votes properly, that they have not been hacked and that they cannot be tampered with, said Mark Wolosik, longtime manager of the Allegheny County Elections Division. Each test is designed to check a potential breach in the system.

“The voting public can feel confident,” Wolosik said. “Everything is tested extensively before the election, after election and on Election Day.”

Election officials in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties said they are confident their electronic voting systems are immune from hackers or malware that could alter election results.

“In my experience, there is no way to compromise these election systems,” said Dave Ridilla, head of Westmoreland County's computer information department.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called the security and integrity of Pennsylvania's elections into question this month when he said, while campaigning in Altoona, that the only way he could lose the state is through fraud. Trump's campaign said there is concern that electronic voting machines, like the 24,000 used in Pennsylvania, could be hacked.

The latest aggregate polling data from Real Clear Politics shows Trump trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 9 points in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro A. Cortes said voter fraud as Trump has described is “so extremely rare as to be virtually nonexistent.” He said rigging an election through Pennsylvania voting machines and poll workers is “highly unlikely.”

“The insinuation that there could be widespread fraud of this sort in our elections has no basis in fact and undermines confidence in our system of government,” Cortes, a Democrat, said in a rebuke of Trump's statement.

Westmoreland County uses self-contained computer election machines programmed with separate digital media that start the elections process and another that records the votes. Those votes are transported by poll workers to the courthouse where the data are downloaded onto another computer not linked the county's network. Vote totals are never transmitted from the machines via the Internet, Ridilla said.

“The only thing someone can do to tamper with the election is use false identification to vote,” Ridilla said.

In Allegheny County, the first test of voting machines happens once the final November ballot is decided, ideally no later than six weeks before the election. County employees run an automated mock vote through every machine to make sure a vote for “candidate A” registers correctly. Employees perform a similar manual test on a selection of machines.

Later, a company visits the North Side warehouse and randomly selects 20 machines to verify that the firmware is the same as the firmware authorized by state and federal officials.

On Election Day, Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP, a Downtown accounting and advisory firm, runs a parallel election on selected machines. Baker Tilly employees simulate a potential vote at a real county precinct to make sure that the votes cast by the employees are the same as the votes recorded by the machines. Wolosik said Allegheny County is the only county in the state to run a parallel test.

“It's to show that as Election Day as is occurring, someone can't say you put a Trojan horse in,” he said.

The county opens these tests to election integrity groups such as Vote Allegheny and the League of Women Voters as well as political parties, Wolosik said.

The county has a company verify that the voting machines and equipment used to transmit votes were not connected to the Internet, he said.

Final vote tallies are sent to the county's central election database over secure phone lines, not over the Internet.

Allegheny County's extensive testing does not satisfy groups that oppose using the voting machines.

Annette Shimer, president of the League of Women Voters' Pittsburgh Chapter, and her husband, Preston Shimer, a League member and a judge of elections, said they don't like that the machines don't record votes based on a paper ballot. They would like a system in which paper ballots are scanned into an electronic system. The paper ballots then could be used to verify questionable results.

“We really have no visibility into the software to know if a vote for John Jones really goes to John Jones,” Preston Shimer said. “We really don't have a way of testing how the final vote was recorded.”

Ron Bandes, head of Vote Allegheny, which tried to stop the county from buying the voting machines, and a judge of elections, said there is no way to know whether the machine's software has been tampered with to make a vote for candidate A really go to candidate B. Bandes said, however, that he thinks Wolosik and his team do the best job they can to ensure the integrity of the vote in November.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com. Staff writer Rich Cholodofsky contributed to this report.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.