How reliable are Virginia’s voting machines?

By: Venu Katta

It may be tempting to think that the United States, the land of smartphones and supercomputers, would have commensurate levels of technology when it came to voting. Dispelling this, sadly, does not require us to look very far. Meet the WINVote touchscreen voting machine.

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Created and implemented in the early-2000s (and without any form of update since 2004), the WINVote machine is essentially a glorified laptop running Windows XP that also features a touch display. Its USB ports are physically unprotected, the wireless encryption key is set to “a-b-c-d-e,” the administrator password to access the machine (which is unchangeable) is “admin,” and there exists no auditable paper trail after an individual has voted. Oh, and it’s prone to crash. A lot. All of these, among other concerns, combined to lead security experts to term it “the worst voting machine in the U.S.”

Despite these documented flaws, when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe cast a ballot in 2014 at a Richmond-area precinct, he — like many voters in the city and in other parts of the Commonwealth — encountered the problematic WINVote machine. Multiple complaints over crashes and slow voting led the Governor to call for an investigation by the Virginia Information Technology Agency (VITA).

The report’s damning conclusions in April of last year led to a recommendation, subsequently adopted by the State Board of Elections (SBE), to decertify use of the machine in all of the over 500 precincts in 30 localities within the Commonwealth which utilized  them. Using SBE’s data, I’ve generated a map which identifies the large swath of Virginia which used the WINVotes in at least one  precinct as either a primary machine or Americans with Disability Act compliant-backup for voters with special needs.

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Sadly, the SBE’s decision to eliminate the WINVote does not completely turn the page on the use of poor, outdated technology to tabulate Virginians’ votes. WINVote’s  flaws are symptomatic of the issues within the broader category of voting machines which experts term “Direct Recording Electronic” (DRE) machines.

DRE machines record an individual’s vote electronically (by use of touchscreen or button) and subsequently produce printout results of each machine’s vote totals which are then tabulated. Use of DREs largely began after the federal passage of the 2002 Helping Americans Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA — itself a response to the fiasco of using punch-card machines that resulted in the so-called “hanging chad” of the 2000 election — gave localities funds to modernize their voting processes. This often meant purchasing DREs — like the WINVote — en masse.

Crucially, DRE machines lack individual ballots as opposed to vote totals. This prevents post-election recount or audit of votes from having an effective paper-trail for investigators to check those vote totals against. This oversight raises the possibility of either improper alteration of results or, significantly, potential for non-malicious machine failure.

It is important to note, however, that there have not been any documented successful attempts to alter vote totals on DRE election machines outside of controlled, laboratory settings. Additionally, data on DREs is stored in multiple locations on the machine and a successful hack would need to affect each of these locations. While many safeguards, including the physical presence of election officials in the vicinity of machines, makes such an event unlikely — the potential concern for impropriety has nonetheless been  raised .

Indeed, Virginia lawmakers lent these concerns credence nearly a decade ago when, in 2007, they voted to not authorize the replacement of DREs as they wore out. Localities are mandated to cease usage of DRE by July 1, 2020, with many opting to replace DREs with “Optical Scan” machines. Such machines simply read paper ballots on which voters have bubbled in their preferences. Should there be questions about the machine’s counted total (again either through hacking or simple malfunction), it is always possible for officials to simply recount the stored paper ballots at the precinct.

Yet despite having nearly a decade to implement these changes, many localities in Virginia — even after the ban on WINVote machines — still utilize DREs of some kind in their precincts as the primary means of voting. Based off of SBE’s summary of locality machine usage, the following generated map indicates the counties and cities in the Commonwealth which use either DREs or DREs in conjunction with some other type of machine in at least 1 precinct.

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The communities indicated, mostly in rural areas of Virginia, are in a particularly pernicious bind. Wholesale upgrading of voting machines without federal or state funds to do so is burdensome on local budgets, especially in non-wealthy parts of the State. However, as the machines continue to age, the potential for machines wearing down and failing only increases and lingering concerns over impropriety remain. While legislation will force these localities to find some way in which to comply by 2020, there still remain  Presidential, Gubernatorial, Congressional, State Senate and State House of Delegates elections in the interim.

Ultimately, while efforts by the Commonwealth have been effective at improving the quality of voting machines through decertification and gradual replacement, it is important to note that many localities have been slow to eliminate DREs. Though it would be inaccurate and irresponsible to describe Virginia’s voting machines as completely unsafe, or to otherwise seek to fan conspiratorial theories about the legitimacy of upcoming votes, the issue nonetheless is one that merits scrutiny and attention.

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