Voting tech creates growing concern for local officials

Some voters in Johnson County, Ind., found themselves waiting for hours to cast their ballots in last year’s midterm elections, but not because of a massive surge in turnout or malfunctioning voting machines.

What struggled to work were the electronic poll books used to check a voter's registration, triggering long lines at polling stations.

A state investigation determined that the vendor for the e-poll books, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), was responsible for the technical issue, and the Johnson County election board ultimately voted to terminate the contract.

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ES&S is one of the biggest voting machine vendors in the country. And despite the report's findings, other counties in Indiana have continued to work with it, including some that recently signed new contracts.

Experts told The Hill that the scenario underscores the new issues that local election officials have to consider as they juggle the benefits and security risks of voting technology, particularly in light of heightened concerns over election hacking.

With new technology being used in elections, local officials have seen their responsibilities grow. They are now tasked not just with selecting voting equipment, but with making sure it's as secure as possible and that the vendors they work with are holding up their end of the bargain.

But officials are also quick to acknowledge that no matter how prepared they are, issues are still likely to arise on Election Day: During the 2018 midterms, voters in Georgia, New York and Philadelphia all faced long lines over technical issues with machines or broken equipment.

Trena McLaughlin, the county clerk for Indiana’s Johnson County who took office after the November vote, told The Hill that the election board decided to terminate its contract with ES&S because the community had lost trust in the vendor.

“We have had a lot of people asking, ‘should we be using ES&S?’” she said.

McLaughlin said the locality was currently using voting machines borrowed from another county but would look to buy new ones in the near future. She declined to say whether officials were pursuing legal action against the voting machine vendors.

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Long lines at polls are considered a deterrent to voting. And election security experts told The Hill that malicious cyber actors could disrupting the e-poll books in the same way they were impacted in Johnson County in order to interfere in an election.

But not all of the local election officials were on board with the change.

Cindy Rapp, one of the Democrats on the board, said she voted against ending the contract. She said the county had worked with the firm for many years without any issues, and that she feared introducing different equipment could create new issues for voters who were used to the ES&S machines.

“The people that we’ve been involved with and the voting machines themselves, we had never had a problem,” Rapp said.

Rapp also said that she feared it was too soon to the country’s next primary elections to bring in new machines and make sure that they were properly configured.

ES&S spokeswoman Katina Granger said in an email to The Hill that the company “continues to work with the Indiana Secretary of State’s office to ensure successful elections in 2019.”

“As was previously reported there were poll book anomalies which took place in Johnson County, Indiana, during the November 2018 midterm where a poll book issue during the first part of election day caused longer wait times than normal,” Granger said. “While the issue was resolved on election day, we know some wait times were not acceptable and we look forward to continuing to work with our partners in Indiana regarding the situation.”

At the request of Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, the Voting System Technical Oversight Program (VSTOP), based out of Ball State University, investigated Johnson County’s issues with ES&S.

The program’s report, issued late last year, found that ES&S switched to a new cloud service provider for its e-poll books, but that it wasn’t properly configured to give it enough bandwidth. This caused the system to lag when checking voters against the registration database, resulting in long waits to vote.

“The situation which occurred in Johnson is unacceptable for any Indiana electronic poll book vendor,” the report reads. “The responsibility for what occurred rests on the shoulders of ES&S.”

The report also alleged that ES&S violated Indiana election law by not reporting some issues with the poll books ahead of time.

Even after the VSTOP report was issued, four other Indiana counties chose to start using ES&S equipment.

The Indiana Secretary of State’s office declined to comment to The Hill on whether they made other counties aware of the poll book issue with ES&S.

Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina, said the issues with the Indiana election point toward ES&S not doing enough testing beforehand to make sure that its equipment would be fully functional during voting.

Buell said that it can be difficult for vendors to make sure their equipment is capable to handle the amount of stress it will face on Election Day. And officials can’t stop an election to address any sort of technical breakdown, making advance testing highly important.

“It’s not always clear to me that election officials do enough of that, and they may rely too heavily on the vendor,” Buell said.

Edgardo Cortes, the former Virginia commissioner of elections and an election security adviser at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that while electronic poll books can be helpful in accurately tracking which voters have already cast their ballots, they can also present new security and technological vulnerabilities.

The e-poll books, linked up to the voter registration database, can help poll workers more quickly find and confirm a voter’s identity and help with same-day voter registration. But they also offer the potential for issues like those seen in Johnson County, and counties that move the devices to the cloud might not have enough bandwidth or internet service for the poll books to function properly.

Cortes agreed that election officials can’t rely too heavily on vendors like ES&S to guarantee that no problems will pop up during voting.

“To rely solely on what they’re telling you without doing any due diligence on your part is not the way to run elections,” he said.

Concerns about election hacking have permeated the country after the U.S. intelligence community determined that Russia successfully interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Federal government officials say they have stepped up their efforts to help state and local officials conduct elections. The Department of Homeland Security notified 21 states that they were targeted by Russian hackers ahead of the 2016 vote, and Illinois’s voter registration database was breached.

Matt Bernhard, an election security researcher at the University of Michigan, said he feared issues like that in Johnson County could undermine voters’ confidence in the election systems, and cause them to not vote or doubt election results.

And voting machine vendors also have to earn the trust of election officials, he said.

“If no election officials trust their products, they’re not going to be able to sell it to anybody,” Bernhard said.