On Tuesday, voters in Montgomery County will be the first in Southeastern Pennsylvania to try out new voting technology aimed at securing elections and reducing the chances of hacking.
Gone are the curtained booths and push-button machines.
Instead, voters will fill bubbles in paper ballots that resemble end-of-year school tests from behind cardboard privacy screens. Once complete, the voting sheets are fed into a scanner “sitting on what looks like a trash can,” said Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners and one of three Democrats on the ballot this primary. The physical ballots will be kept for two years, creating a verifiable paper trail for each vote cast.
Systems like this will soon be the norm.
By the 2020 election, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has urged local officials across the country to update their voting procedures to use paper ballots.
In Pennsylvania, all counties must pick which pre-approved system they’ll adopt by the end of this year. So far nine counties have implemented new systems: Bradford, Centre, Crawford, Green, Indiana, Lawrence, Montgomery, Pike and Susquehanna. More than 30 have started the process, according to Jonathan Marks, deputy secretary for elections and commissions with the Pennsylvania Department of State.
The vulnerability of computer-based systems to cyberattacks explains the return to older, analog technology.
“You can’t hack paper,” said Arkoosh. “If there’s any concerns, any indication that there may have been some technical problem with the scanners, for instance, or the race is just very, very close, we can do an actual recount of voter-marked paper.”
Recent revelations that Russian hackers infiltrated two county elections offices in Florida in 2016 underscore the importance of this switch. While ballots cast there were not connected to the systems compromised by hackers, and they did not tamper with vote tallies, according to Florida lawmakers, other details about the incursion are forthcoming.
“This push right now is mostly about security, but I think the timing was right anyway,” said Marks, adding that prior to the recent push voting machines in the commonwealth were between 15 and 30 years old.
Montgomery County last turned over its ballot-casting technology in 1996. Four years later, issues with unclear returns from punch card ballots in Florida triggered a recount and initiated calls for new voting procedures. Subsequently, many states adopted Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) Systems, where voters choices are entered to a hard drive. Only some states use DRE systems that create a paper record of ballots cast, and Pennsylvania is not one of them.
After inviting the public to try out several new voting technologies last year, Montgomery County selected the Dominion Voting Systems’ Democracy Suite 5.5-A, with a price tag of $5.8 million to taxpayers. That money went towards 475 ballot scanners and 450 Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant ballot marking devices (those resemble electronic voting machines, but produce a paper ballot, which in turn is scanned). The government shutdown earlier this year threatened to derail the rollout but ended in time for the new machines to receive the federal certification needed to be put in use.
On Tuesday, poll workers will be on hand to answer questions about the new system.