If you’ve tuned into the news at any point over the past three years, chances are you’ve heard that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 presidential election. 

Russian interference, “in sweeping and systematic fashion,” was a key — and much publicized — finding of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report to the U.S. Attorney General earlier this year. But a less prominent finding was that Russia’s meddling also targeted state and county officials in an attempt to access voter rolls and voting systems. According to Mueller, Russia successfully accessed voter rolls in Illinois and even hacked one of the companies that sells election equipment to states and counties. 

The potential for future attacks, particularly during the 2020 presidential election, has worried some elections experts and advocates in Allegheny County and beyond. 

But now, as Allegheny County and many other Pennsylvania counties are in the process of buying new voting machines, there is an opportunity to select equipment that will maintain integrity at the polls.

The state government, as part of a lawsuit settlement, has directed all counties to implement a voting system with a paper trail by the 2020 primaries. By 2022, counties must have a system in place to automatically audit election results to ensure they’re accurate. 

At present, a search committee comprised of 10 Allegheny County employees has issued a report assessing the cost and security protocols of nine different voting systems from four companies. Some are paper based, some are computer based.

Not all of the systems appear to meet Allegheny County’s parameters for security and capacity. Because Allegheny County is broken up into so many small municipalities and has 43 school districts, the report states that any new voting system must be able to accommodate thousands of possible election contests. All are still being considered.

The total replacement cost, some of which will be offset by federal funds, could range from $9.3 million to $22.8 million. Annual maintenance costs could range from $235,000 to $766,000.

Allegheny County last purchased new machines in 2006. Without a secure voting system, some elections experts say, voters could lose confidence in casting ballots.

Allegheny County’s interim Board of Elections is meeting at 9 a.m. Aug. 30 in the Gold Room of the county courthouse (436 Grant St.) to review and discuss the selection committee’s report on voting systems. Members of the public who arrive early and sign in will be allowed to speak at the beginning of the meeting. The interim Board of Elections will hold a subsequent meeting at 4 p.m. Sept. 9 in the Gold Room. A vote to select the new system “will likely be at the subsequent meeting,” county spokesperson Amie Downs wrote in an email. 

Downs said members of the search committee and the interim Board of Elections would not be available for interviews until after the county selects a new voting system. 

PublicSource has compiled information available on the process of purchasing new voting equipment thus far. Here’s what you need to know: 

Why is Allegheny County buying new voting equipment now?

Remember Dr. Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party nominee for president? The reason Allegheny County and others are purchasing new voting equipment for the 2020 election is partially her doing.

After former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton narrowly lost Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan to President Donald Trump, the Clinton campaign was hesitant to petition for recounts. Stein’s camp, however, was not and, with the eventual support of the Clinton campaign, asked for recounts in all three states in the weeks after the election. 

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in Philadelphia in July 2016 during the Democratic National Convention. Stein sued Pennsylvania after the 2016 election, saying the state’s voting systems were faulty. (Photo by J. Dale Shoemaker/PublicSource)
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in Philadelphia in July 2016 during the Democratic National Convention. Stein sued Pennsylvania after the 2016 election, saying the state’s voting systems were faulty. (Photo by J. Dale Shoemaker/PublicSource)

In Pennsylvania, a full recount was impossible to complete. 

A majority of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties used what’s called direct-recording electronic voting machines, or DREs. That’s what Allegheny County currently uses. When a person votes on a DRE machine, there are no records of that vote besides what went into the official count. There’s no backup system in place, like a paper ballot or receipt of sorts, to know if a person’s vote was recorded accurately by the machine. 

Chris Deluzio, policy director at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security, said the lack of a paper trail means that if there are concerns about a machine’s accuracy, it’s impossible to know if a voter’s choice was accurately recorded. 

“So if there’s a question of whether machines are compromised due to a technological failure or hack, you have nothing you can then check or tabulate to confirm that tabulation, right?” he said. “That goes to public trust.” 

Stein’s campaign sued Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro Cortes and his department in December 2016 calling, in part, for “an end to the use of paperless voting machines known to be vulnerable to hacking, tampering and error.” 

In February 2018, Acting Secretary of State Robert Torres issued a directive that all voting equipment purchased after that date had to have a paper trail of some kind. The state settled Stein’s lawsuit and the directive became a requirement that all county voting systems have a paper trail by 2020 and a system for automatic audits by 2022. 

What does Allegheny County use now?

Allegheny County uses DREs without a voter-verified paper trail. According to Verified Voting, a national nonpartisan organization that advocates for voter-verified election systems, Allegheny County and 49 other Pennsylvania counties use these systems. 

Many voting systems in Pennsylvania were purchased more than a decade ago when federal funding was made available via the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Deluzio sees funding as a hurdle as counties begin to move away from DREs. He said the  federal government in particular should give more money to states and counties so they can purchase more secure systems. 

“It’s not fair to leave state [and] local officials as the only ones fighting that fight against our cyber adversaries,” he said. “So I think that means money, right? Congress ought to be giving the states more money to make these kinds of investments.”

Statewide, the price tag for Pennsylvania counties could be $150 million, according to Deluzio. Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged to issue a $90 million bond to help Pennsylvania counties pay for the new equipment. The federal government has chipped in $1.55 million to Allegheny County’s effort. For expenses not covered by federal funds or a bond that extends payback over time beyond current taxpayers, local taxpayers foot any immediate costs.

Which machines are being considered?

According to the search committee evaluating the voting systems, Allegheny County needs a voting system that can work in its 1,350 voting precincts and that’s capable of supporting up to 10,000 candidates, 7,000 contests and 4,000 ballot styles.

Four companies — Clear Ballot, Dominion Voting, Election Systems & Software [ES&S] and Hart InterCivic — responded to the county’s request for proposal. But only ES&S appeared to meet all of the county’s requirements for number of candidates, contests and ballot styles. ES&S submitted proposals for both paper-based systems and hybrid systems that marry touchscreen voting machines and paper records. 

David Voye, the county’s division manager for elections, wrote in an email that “all companies and proposals are being considered by the Board of Elections.” 

“The Search Committee was given a specific charge and completed that process with their report which has been presented to the Board for its consideration,” Voye wrote.

In February, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale reported that officials in 18 counties had received money or gifts from ES&S and Dominion Voting. Allegheny County officials on the search committee told the auditor general they did not receive or accept money or gifts from any voting equipment companies. 

In light of recent news that Philadelphia officials accepted campaign contributions from ES&S while they were selecting new voting machines, Allegheny County Family Court Judge Kathryn Hens-Greco wrote an email to fellow members of the interim Board of Elections and other county officials asking them to proactively state whether they’d received money or gifts from vendors. 

A resident walks near a polling place in East Liberty on May 21, 2019. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“I will start,” she wrote in the email. “I have not received any money, gifts or other things of value or lobbying with regard to this process. Additionally, I have had no private meetings with any vendors or lobbyists.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reported recently that some county elections officials also said they haven’t received money or gifts from vendors. 

In an email, Voye said all search committee members are required to advise the county’s assistant solicitor, Allan Opsitnick, of “any prohibited communications or proffered gifts.” Voye said Opsitnick “is not aware of any type of prohibited communication or gift offered to a member of the committee.” 

Which machines are most secure?

At this point, most elections experts and advocates agree that hand-marked paper ballots are the most secure voting system, in part because there’s a paper trail and in part because those ballots are inherently voter-verifiable. 

Because a voter marked the ballot themselves, by hand, they “verified” the choice they made. 

If there was a recount or suspicion that the computer tabulation wasn’t accurate, election officials could go back to the paper ballots that voters marked and know that the vote had been free of outside interference. But there’s a hybrid system that’s gaining popularity known as Ballot Marking Devices [BMD].

With a BMD, a voter makes their selections on a computerized device, usually a touchscreen. The machine then prints a paper receipt with the voter’s choices, which the voter is supposed to review to ensure it is an accurate reflection. The receipt has a barcode or other marking on it that the voter will then scan back into the machine to go toward the official count. 

Some experts, though, question the security and accuracy of using barcodes. Research has shown that voters don’t always review their choices before scanning. 

Recently published research by Deluzio and his colleagues at Pitt show hand-marked paper ballot systems are also cheaper than the computerized ones. The Pitt researchers have been studying Pennsylvania counties as they purchase new voting systems. Counties that purchased BMDs spent an average of $24.60 per voter, they found, while those that bought hand-marked paper ballot systems spent an average of $12.37 per voter.

But not everyone agrees that DREs are a flawed system or that paper ballots are a particularly good system. Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, leans toward DREs. For more than two decades of his career, he served as a statutory examiner of computerized voting systems for the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. To his mind, DREs are an effective system and the concerns advocates raise about them aren’t realistic. In fact, Shamos argues that it’s much more common for paper ballots to be manipulated than it is for a DRE machine to be manipulated. 

Nearly every election, Shamos said, there are news stories about paper ballots going missing or votes not being counted. Indeed, that appeared to have happened in Florida in the 2018 general election. Florida, which primarily uses paper ballots, had issues with lost votes that cycle, according to the New York Times

“You wouldn’t believe what people do with ballots,” Shamos said. “I give you a choice of three candidates, you write ‘yes’ next to one and ‘no’ next to two. When the machine scans that it will either throw the ballot out or overcount it.”

Marian Schneider, the president of Verified Voting and former special advisor to Wolf on election policy, said Shamos ignores the risks of DREs. While Shamos argued that manipulating DRE machines that aren’t connected to the internet would be impossible, Schneider said the biggest issue is that it’s impossible to know if a DRE machine was compromised. 

“You can mitigate the risk as much as you can, but you’ll never get the risk down to zero,” said Schneider, who played a significant role in Pennsylvania’s move away from DREs. “The design flaw with direct recording electronic [machines] is that you can have an undetectable change in the software that results in an undetectable change in the election outcome. And that’s just unacceptable.”

Is the process transparent?

Some residents have raised concerns, both publicly and to county officials directly, about the process. Juliet Zavon, a Democrat and fair elections advocate, has spoken before Allegheny County Council numerous times on a need for greater transparency. And Ron Bandes, the president of the nonpartisan fair election advocacy group VoteAllegheny, has met with county officials to voice his concerns about what equipment the county will choose. Bandes also questioned whether the process was transparent enough.

Even though the search committee recently issued its assessment report, the two were concerned about a lack of information coming from the county about the process. Bandes still is.

Juliet Zavon shuffles through printouts of comments she’s made before Allegheny County Council regarding the purchase of new voting equipment. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Juliet Zavon shuffles through printouts of comments she’s made before Allegheny County Council regarding the purchase of new voting equipment. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“I don’t think the report addresses the concerns,” Bandes said. “The report doesn’t say anything about how the committee was selected, or anything about their meetings.”

Zavon and Bandes say that buying the wrong voting equipment could threaten the integrity of voting in Allegheny County. Having a transparent purchasing process and buying a secure, voter-verifiable voting system is essential, they say. 

Zavon also said she thinks the the 10-member search committee should include security experts and not county employees alone. The search committee did consult with a security expert and met with Bandes, a retired network security analyst, and David Eckhardt, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. But Zavon wonders why they weren’t actually named to the committee making the selection.

Zavon said she wants the county to choose the most accurate system.

“Accurate means it reflects how you voted and your true preferences, and it’s designed in a way where you can’t just zip right through it,” Zavon said. “I value your voice and your vote and I want a system set up that is the most likely to give that result.”

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource’s government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker.

This story was fact-checked by Samuel Marks.

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J. Dale Shoemaker was a reporter for PublicSource between 2017 and 2019.