Virginia Decertifies DRE Machines

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Last Friday, the Commonwealth of Virginia decertified – with immediate effect – the use of all direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines. Here’s the press release from the Department of Elections:

The Department of Elections today called for the immediate decertification of Direct Record Electronic (DRE) voting equipment in Virginia, and the State Board of  Elections approved the request in an effort to increase the security and integrity of Virginia’s voting systems ahead of the November election.

The vote to decertify the DRE, or touchscreen, voting equipment is effective immediately and means that DREs may no longer be used for elections in Virginia. DREs are used in 22 localities across the Commonwealth. 

The Department of Elections had requested a security assessment by the Virginia Information Technology Agency (VITA) of various paperless voting systems in use in Virginia and determined that decertification was necessary to safeguard against unauthorized access to the machines. Additionally, the DREs in use in Virginia do not have a voter-verifiable paper audit trail, which is an important security feature provided by the paper systems.

“The security of the election process is always of paramount importance. The Department is continually vigilant on matters related to security of voting equipment used in Virginia,” said Edgardo Cortés, Virginia’s Commissioner of Elections. “The ability to meaningfully participate in our democracy is one of the most important rights that we have as citizens, and the Department of Elections is dedicated to maintaining voters’ confidence in the democratic process.”

James Alcorn, Chair of the State Board of Elections, added: “Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that Virginia elections are carried out in a secure and fair manner. The step we took today to decertify paperless voting systems is necessary to ensure the integrity of Virginia’s elections.”

The Department contacted all DRE localities in early August about the security concerns so that they had sufficient time to prepare for a smooth transition. Throughout this process, the Department has coordinated with local officials and vendors, which have affirmed adequate inventory and staff to handle equipping and training localities with new voting equipment. “The Department has served as a significant resource during this process and their work has helped general registrars minimize voter impact and has even saved local taxpayer dollars,” said Tracy Howard, President, Voter Registrars Association of Virginia.

The release does make a point to note that the state had requested funds for for machine replacement – funds which were denied by the legislature:

For several years, the Department of Elections has encouraged localities to upgrade voting equipment that has reached its expected end of life. In response to these concerns, Governor McAuliffe proposed adding $28 million to the state budget for all Virginia localities to purchase new voting machines in 2015. However, the proposal was not approved by the General Assembly.

Press coverage of the decision focused in part on the recent DEFCON “hacking village”, which spotlighted several vulnerabilities. The Washington Post:

Ahead of the vote, state elections officials laid out concerns about the machines in a report, which noted vulnerability exposed and exacerbated by hackers at DefCon.

“DefCon, an annual conference of hackers, promoted the ‘Voting Machine Hacking Village’ at which multiple voting machines, mostly DREs, were made available,” it said. “Multiple types of DREs, some of which are currently in use in Virginia, were hacked according to public reports from DefCon. Additional troubling reports from DefCon were publicized, including one that expressly stated the password for a DRE that was in use in the Commonwealth, and one that indicated that some DREs in use have a single password shared by all machines from an individual vendor.”

It’s important to note that while this decision seems sudden, the truth is that Virginia has been on this path for quite a while; the state prohibited localities from buying new DRE machines years ago. That’s small consolation for the dozen or so communities who can no longer use their DREs and were not yet on track to replace them – for them, this fall’s statewide general election could be a challenge. It will be interesting to see how the vote proceeds in those localities – and if money is made available (at any level) to replace them.

Still, this is a rather significant move by Virginia – and combined with recent reports from other states (like Georgia), could suggest that the DRE era in American elections is approaching its end. Stay tuned …

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