David Hickton: Don’t nickel & dime Pennsylvania’s democracy
The front lines of today’s cyberwarfare battles are not just at Fort Meade. They are in Allegheny County’s Elections Division. And in Erie County. And Butler County. And Indiana County. And all across Pennsylvania.
Our elections — and the integrity of your vote — are under threat from nation-state adversaries. As of today, Pennsylvania is not prepared to defend against what will almost certainly be unprecedented attacks in the next presidential election cycle. But there is still time to secure the 2020 election. The General Assembly, however, needs to help counties secure this most critical of battlegrounds.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security spent much of the past year studying current and future cyber-based threats to Pennsylvania’s elections. What we found was sobering. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, more than 80 percent of Pennsylvania voters were registered to vote in precincts that did not use paper-based voting systems, meaning that most of Pennsylvania’s counties would be unable to even detect the hack of a voting system, let alone recover from it.
The types of paperless voting systems in use throughout Pennsylvania have been repeatedly demonstrated to be insecure for well over a decade, hacked by students and their professors; deemed a national security threat by federal officials; and urged to be “removed from service as soon as possible” by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
An independent, bipartisan body, the commission leadership and members included Republicans and Democrats and reflected a diverse group of experts with varied experience in and out of government. Leveraging this group, we set out not only to identify threats but also to offer solutions. The single most important step we can take to secure our elections — and our confidence therein — is to replace Pennsylvania’s insecure voting machines. These paperless machines are vulnerable to hacking even if they are never directly connected to the internet.
As the commission recommended, we must replace these outdated machines with systems that allow for voter-marked paper ballots. The most secure and least expensive option will be to use hand-marked paper ballots, supplemented by ballot-marking devices for those who need them; all tabulated by optical scan systems. We must also follow every election with a robust and mandatory risk-limiting audit to verify the vote count and thus secure the integrity of the vote. These recommendations and others, including on securing Pennsylvania’s voter registration system and improving contingency planning, can be read in the commission’s report.
To be sure, securing our elections from foreign interference is not free. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania estimated that new systems and training could run as much as $125 million across the state, or about $9.76 per Pennsylvanian. Gov. Tom Wolf has requested $15 million from the General Assembly for this next fiscal year (with an additional $60 million to be requested in the subsequent four fiscal years) to help counties pay for new systems, in addition to an existing $14 million from the federal government.
The security of our elections should be a federal, state, and local priority — and Pennsylvania should cost-share the purchase of secure machines accordingly.
I urge the General Assembly to consider the governor’s request for helping counties fund secure voting systems to be a floor — not a ceiling. I am sensitive to competing demands on the General Assembly’s budget, as well as counties’ budgets. However, the security of our elections is at risk. And the biggest risk to Pennsylvania’s elections right now is one we can prevent: failing to fund the replacement of insecure voting systems.