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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: Now is time to prevent Pa. election hacking

| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, 8:03 p.m.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security plans on issuing its full report in early 2019, but “given the urgency of the threat” to our elections, it has issued interim findings to sound the alarm.

The commission is co-chaired by former U.S. attorney and Democrat David Hickton and Grove City College president and Republican Paul McNulty, who is also the former deputy attorney general of the United States.

While stating that there is “no publicly available evidence of successful hacking of the 2016 U.S. elections,” the commission found that “there is also no question that Pennsylvania’s elections, like other states, are under threat.” And, since changing government is like turning a battleship — you have to start turning miles before you hope to round the bend — now is the time to move.

Stealing votes is as old as free elections and not uncommon in the political machine days. One party stalwart would grow one fingernail longer to hide a piece of pencil lead and secretly change unacceptable ballots. In another town, a party guy sat in the basement, changing ballots that fell through a trap door under the ballot box and earning the moniker, “The Changer.”

On the old mechanical voting machines, pulling the plug from the socket could block votes for a while in an opponent’s strongest district. Snapping off a toothpick in the tiny hole behind a lever could stop votes for that candidate until a voter complained.

But, all of that was more like shoplifting than anything else. A few votes here and there might swing a local election, or even a bigger race if it was very close, but most elections usually went the way the voters intended.

Today is different. Stealing votes now is more like grand theft, a heist. Votes can be hijacked in bulk from remote locations, by hacking electronic voting systems. Our voting machines are sitting ducks, with no paper printout for a proper audit or recount.

The commission found that over 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s voting machines lack a paper record, and that is a “national security concern,” according to Homeland Security Secretary Kierstjen Nielsen. And, replacing those machines as soon as possible, with “voter-marked paper ballots (either by hand or by machine),” is essential.

It will not be cheap, with one estimate at $125 million across the state. Staying ahead of the hackers will generate ongoing costs. That is why the commission is calling on Pennsylvania and the federal government to provide funding for the counties.

The commission is getting to other problems, too. Some counties outsource some election functions to unsecure vendors. Voter rolls are easy targets, leading to voter suppression. And, there is no disaster planning with a path forward in the event that an election is stolen. But, the machines are a start.

We struggle to find the funds to replace and repair roads and bridges, maintain parks and improve water and sewer systems — the infrastructure of our communities. We always fall short, and that is a dangerous game.

But, this is a more fundamental danger. Our elections are the infrastructure of our democracy. And that infrastructure is crumbling, too.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at misticklaw@gmail.com.

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