Old Dominion+Old Machines=New Problems: electionlineWeekly on Virginia Decertification Issue


[Image courtesy of verifiedvoting]

Last week in Virginia, the “impending crisis” in voting technology got a little less impending and a lot more crisis as the new agency tasked with administering elections announced its plan to decertify voting equipment used in many localities across the Commonwealth. electionlineWeekly’s Mindy Moretti has the story – and the fallout:

On April 1, the Virginia Department of Elections released an interim report citing critical, potential security concerns with the WinVote DREs, in particular with the wireless capability of the system.

Despite the date, this was no joke.

Following scattered reports of problems with voting systems in the state during the November 2014 election, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) called for an investigation into the irregularities. The State Board of Elections began its review in late 2014, but it wasn’t until early 2015 that the extent of the problem became obvious.

“We really didn’t know until early February that there was a potential security issue with the WinVotes,” said Edgardo Cortes, commissioner of elections for the Commonwealth. “At that point we moved quickly to conduct additional testing, but it wasn’t until the preliminary test results were provided on March 26 that we knew how serious a vulnerability we were facing.”

Twenty-nine localities — about 20 percent of the precincts in the Commonwealth — use the WinVote DREs and of those, 10 are facing June primaries.

On April 14, the SBE will meet at which time Cortes anticipates the board may decertify the system for use in Virginia.

“We know the timing of this is not great – but there is never a good time to discuss possible decertification of a voting system,” Cortes said. “I have been in elections for a long time and we would not have recommended the board consider such a serious and immediate option for a minor issue.”

Since the reports release, the SBE has been in touch with all the affected localities, especially those with upcoming primaries. The board has also surveyed the localities to identify some of their needs

The SBE has solicited information from voting system vendors about their capacity to help the jurisdictions conduct a successful June primary and all the vendor plans are available on the state’s website.

Cortes said they have also been exploring the ability of localities to share equipment with neighbors and other “creative ideas suggested by our local registrars and electoral board members.”

“This has been a cooperative process as we head towards next week’s public hearing,” Cortes said.

While the process may have been cooperative since the release of the report, not everyone has been happy with the handling of things.

Arlington County, which is one of the 10 localities facing a June primary, is home to 52 precincts and is the third largest jurisdiction using the WinVote DREs.

According to Linda Lindberg, director of elections, the county has been using WinVote machines for nearly 12 years and has never had any significant issues with the machines. Lindberg finds the state’s report and the timing of the report troubling.

“The fundamental problem is that the State Board of Elections and Department of Elections have put us in an untenable position,” Lindberg said. “…[I]f we are able to continue using WINvote, we are tainted by the flawed stigma they have raised. And if we are forced to not use WINvote, we have to come up with the funds and rush a new system implementation. The proverbial rock and hard place.”

Cortes stressed that the report ultimately wasn’t about whether or not localities had any problems in November 2014, but that it was a proactive step to address a serious security issue his office identified before it causes problems during an election.

“I’m a former registrar from a locality that used WinVotes,” Cortes said. “While I would have been unhappy about the timing of this while I was in a locality, it is nothing compared to how I would have felt if I ended up having an equipment problem on election day and found out later that the state knew about it and didn’t address it.”

Kirk Showalter, general registrar for the City of Richmond also has issues with the state’s report. Showalter said the city — with 65 precincts — has been using the system for nearly a decade with few problems.

“We have been using the WinVote machines for a decade now and found them to be exceptionally reliable and accurate,” Showalter said. “In the 10 years in which we’ve used the machines, we’ve only had two actual mechanical failures in the precincts on election day.”

Richmond is also conducting primary elections in June and Showalter said it will be next to impossible to purchase or lease new equipment in time for the election.

“The timing of all of this is most regrettable,” Showalter said. “Our ballot proofs are due to the State Board of Elections on Friday. Yet I won’t know for certain whether or not we have to switch equipment until next week. The week after we must start absentee voting. As you know, the equipment governs the form and printing of the ballot. Thus, I will not know what equipment I will be able to use for absentee voting until only a week before it starts. In order to be ready regardless of what happens, I am working on two parallel tracks:one using my existing equipment and one using new optical scan equipment.”

Showalter said she is preparing ballot proofs for both eventualities and that her office has identified the type of equipment that they would like to use if they are required to switch equipment.

In Henrico County, which has 800 WinVotes for 92 polling places, Registrar Mark Coakley seems resigned to his fate.

“If our DRE’s are decertified on April 14, a plan is in place for voting equipment replacement,” Coakley said. “I have basically put all county administration departments on standby for quick action if needed.”

Coakley said a plan was already in place for the county to purchase new voting machines in the upcoming fiscal year and that if the need to purchase new equipment arises sooner, he said he would leave that up to the county accountants to get the necessary funding before the July 1 start to the fiscal year.

While Henrico uses the most WinVotes, Coakley said the one saving grace if the machines are decertified before the upcoming election would be the predicted low turnout.

“Sadly, as most election officials know, turnout for primary elections is not as high as we would like it to be,” Coakley said. “With DRE equipment or new optical scan equipment we plan on ‘skeleton’ staffing at the polls. Training however will be intensive and efficient. For June, all election officers working the Primary will be trained using county facilities for Saturday and daily classes. Election staff is prepared for as much overtime as our budget can handle.”

Even counties that don’t have an upcoming primary are concerned about the timing of the report because, as Randy Wertz, general registrar in Montgomery County explained, he has already submitted his budget for the upcoming fiscal year and that did not include needing to replace all the county’s WinVote machines.

“…[W]e have already submitted our budget request for the upcoming fiscal year and we had planned on using our WinVote machines for voters with disabilities,” Wertz said. “This machine was designed specifically for this and is perfect for outside the polls (curbside) voting. We have 115 of these machines and they would have lasted for several years in this capacity. Thus saving county money.”

If forced to go with another voting system for future elections, Wertz said he would have to go to the county board of supervisors for additional funds and that the board would be blindsided by the request.

“Thousands of dollars they had not planned on expending – another unfunded mandate from the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Wertz said.

Like Montgomery County, Arlington had already planned to replace its voting machines, but that money — about $700,000 as Lindberg estimates — is not in the budget until FY17. Lindberg said Arlington has been able to work with a neighboring county to borrow machines for the June primary.

While there is no doubt that the elections officials in the affected localities have their concerns with the process, if not the machines themselves, what about the voters?

Cortes said that because of the state’s rigorous certification process, which relies heavily on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s certification process, voters should be confident in the election process and that the public should actually take this report as an example of how the election community moves quickly to address a problem and maintain confidence in the system.

Still, some of the officials like Showalter are worried about the impacts this switch may have on voters.

“Voter education is my biggest and gravest concern,” Showalter said. “Unfortunately, the timing and manner in which this issue has been handled has created a no win situation for us. If we use our WinVotes for the June primary, there will be questions about the results. Conversely, if we move to a new system, will the unfamiliarity of it cause something to go awry?”

Showalter noted that the last time Richmond changed voting systems the city had extensive voter outreach over the course of several months. If forced to change for June, she said she will work with candidates and political parties to get the word out and will have elections officers in the precinct ready to educate voters.

With regard to questions about the security of the systems, Showalter said she will take them as she gets them.

“As to the allegations raised about the security of the WinVotes, all I can do is respond to them with what I know to be the truth and answer any questions raised,” Showalter said. “We are and remain fully confident in their security and accuracy.”

Despite concerns, Arlington’s, Lindberg is prepared to put a positive spin on things.

“I am frankly not overly concerned about training or voter education, because I think we can put a positive spin on things, not by condemning the WINvote but by emphasizing this switch was in the plan all along, and we’ve simply decided to accelerate the change,” Lindberg said.

Two other factors are complicating this issue. First, there are no “off-years” in Virginia – with general elections for state offices in odd-numbered years. Second, the General Assembly has so far refused to go along with the Governor’s request for $28 million in bonding authority to provide funding for new machines.

In an odd way, this issue could actually help with the funding debate given the sudden and urgent need for new technology in so many localities – but it’s never safe to count on legislative appropriations as a short-term solution.

Because of those two factors – and the uncertainty surrounding the funding that would help alleviate them – there are likely to be many Virginia election officials between a “rock and a hard place” in the months to come.

Stay tuned – and thanks as always to Mindy for electionline’s reporting!

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