Philadelphia Elections Won’t Be Hacked

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PHILADELPHIA City Commissioners Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt, whose office manages elections, say the November vote is secure from computerized tampering.

BY TONY WEST
Recent revelations of election interference by Russian and other foreign agents have raised widespread concern about the vulnerability of the November general election to such attacks. Nationwide, 64% of registered voters say election security should be a top priority, according to a Marist Poll released this week; that number rises to 70% in the Northeastern U.S.

Election administration is handled at the state and local level, however. And Pennsylvania authorities are confident their systems are designed to minimize this risk.

“Voters should be very secure in the knowledge that their vote is secure,” said City Commission Chair Lisa Deeley, whose agency administers elections in Philadelphia.

Although it often seems that everything is connected to the internet, Pennsylvania’s election mechanics are not. From the viewpoint of the online world, your vote takes place inside a black box – which is inside another black box.

“Voting machines are not hackable. They are not connected to the internet,” explained Deeley. “Our Board of Elections tabulates the results of machine counts and reports them to the Pennsylvania Department of State, through its Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors (SURE) system.”

Ellen Lyons, a spokesperson for the DoS, gave details on SURE, describing it as “Pennsylvania’s custom-built voter-registration database and primary election-administration tool. State and county election officials use SURE to maintain up-to-date voter rolls, carry out general election administration tasks, issue absentee and provisional ballots and verify the qualifications of voters.” It is walled off from the internet and not connected to any public network, she confirmed.

In addition to vote tabulations, said City Commission Co-Chair Al Schmidt, “Voter registration data are likewise fed into SURE. For elections, these data are extracted from SURE.”

City Commission does not leave everything up to the State, however. Recently a security forum was held in Philadelphia, Deeley noted. “There are other things we can try to manage,” she said.
“We work with outside vendors to enhance our security, “Schmidt added. “But it would be imprudent to talk about these measures.”

Election hacking can theoretically have multiple methods. It could add or subtract raw votes. At a deeper level, it could add or subtract voters. But creating imaginary registered voters who then cast tallied votes would be a complicated task even with election systems that are hackable. A likelier fear is that a hack could delete or invalidate voter registrations – perhaps to depress vote totals in select jurisdictions.

Even black-box systems can be compromised, stated Michael Lazin, a computer-security expert.
There are two common channels of penetration. One is physical. “If a hostile operative gains direct access to the targeted network, it’s game over,” Lazin said.

The other is online deception – a technique known as “phishing.” A data-entry employee may receive a fake email dressed up to read like a directive from a supervisor to install an attached “update” which is actually malware.

Therefore, election security entails a host of controls over routine internal maintenance.
The Keystone State is ready for these challenges as well as many subtler ones, Lyons maintained.

“The Commonwealth’s voting-registration databases are protected behind multiple layers of defenses, including encryption technology and other enhanced security. Voter-registration and voting systems are always separated,” she stated. “Pennsylvania also has independent vulnerability assessments performed on our public-facing applications.”

“There is terrific confusion generated by talk of flawed or compromised election systems in other jurisdictions,” Schmidt said. “But we are confident in our ability to guarantee clean elections in Philadelphia.”

Deeley concurred: “Philadelphia has a longstanding record of allowing its citizens to vote with ease and security. We did an excellent job of maintaining election integrity in 2016.”

One should note that Philadelphia’s City Commission leadership is bipartisan – making it an unlikely tool for throwing elections one way or another.

For people concerned about whether their vote will be negated by fraud, Deeley argues there is safety in numbers.

“The more people vote, the harder it is to come up with a scheme that would cancel out your own vote,” she said. “High turnout is the answer.”

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One Response to Philadelphia Elections Won’t Be Hacked

  1. This article is dangerously misleading. The claim that Philadelphia’s elections cannot be hacked because Pennsylvania’s election mechanics are not connected to the internet is simply wrong.

    Last summer the National Association of Secretaries of State held their national conference right here in Philadelphia. The takeaway message from that conference was that ANY system can be hacked. ANY database can be hacked. And ANY election can be hacked. Election officials need to face this reality. Instead of hiding their heads in the sand and making dubious claims, our election officials need to harden our voting systems.

    The safest and cheapest voting system available right now is a paper ballot, hand-marked by most voters using a pen (with an assistive device for those voters who need them) and counted in-precinct by a small digital scanner. We don’t need expensive pushbutton or touchscreen voting machines for the majority of people. Over 80% of the USA, including major cities like New York, uses hand-marked paper ballots and precinct scanners right now. All voters in Pennsylvania should be voting this way as well. Only voter-marked paper ballots will allow us to start conducting the meaningful, risk-limiting audits of every election that will let us know when we have a problem!

    In the meantime, the one statement in this article that IS absolutely true is that high turnout is the answer to today’s election threats. The more people who vote, the harder it is to tamper with the results. VOTE!

    Marybeth Kuznik
    September 22, 2018 at 11:38 am

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