What local counties are doing to protect your vote

Ohio, counties set to spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to upgrade and replace voting machines ahead of 2020 presidential election as fears of hacking grow.

Across Ohio, local elections officials are buying a new generation of voting machines they hope will be more reliable, less prone to breakdowns and more secure — an overhaul expected to cost more than $210 million.

Most of the voting systems set up in polling places are so old that it’s hard to get replacement parts or related equipment.

New Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who is the top elections official in the state, tells the story of an industrious Darke County Board of Elections employee who hunted down replacement springs.

“He found he could buy the same spring at the tractor supply company in town and put a little bend in it with a pair of needle-nose pliers. And it did the same job,” LaRose said. “So, they’ve been patchworking these things together over the years.”

New machines are expected to arrive any day at the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

County commissioners gave the final go-ahead last week to purchase the equipment, but officials agreed earlier this year to go ahead and switch to a paper-based system from the direct-recording electronic machines built in 2003 and first used in 2005.

“Voters will have a choice when they come to their precincts whether they want to mark their ballot with a pen or whether they want to insert their ballot into a ballot marking device and select on a screen those choices,” said Jan Kelly, Montgomery County Board of Elections director.

In January, the county’s elections board recommended a hybrid system made by Election Systems & Software (ES&S). An order for 900 ballot marking devices and 400 precinct scanners was scheduled to be started shipping from the manufacturer Tuesday.

The county is getting a “Rolex product at a Timex price,” Kelly told county commissioners earlier this year.

Each of Montgomery County’s 177 precincts will get at least four touchscreen marking devices. After voting — whether using a touchscreen device or pen in hand — everyone will feed their ballot into an optical scanner, a step that will be new to Mongtomgery County voters as early as this November’s local elections..

New machines are costly

The ExpressTouch marking devices cost roughly $2,800 apiece and scanners approximately $4,600 each.

Ohio purchased most of the current voting machines in 2005 and 2006 with nearly $115 million in federal money.

This time around, state money will cover a majority of the cost.

In July, Ohio earmarked $114.5 million for counties to buy new systems. Total replacement cost is expected to be $210 million, though the state funding is expected to cover most of the cost of the basic optical scan voting systems, according to the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

Related: Paper ballots likely to replace touchscreen voting for many area voters

Fears of cyber hacking

Voting security is a top priority, especially after evidence emerged that cyber hackers linked to the Russian government tried to infiltrate American election infrastructure in 2016. Those sophisticated threats resulted in federal agencies offering more help to state and local officials, including advice on auditing systems, risk assessment exercises, best practices and the need for a cyber incident response plan.

The integrity of the nation’s voting systems heading into the 2020 election is lagging, leaving equipment vulnerable to cyberattacks or malfunctions on Election Day, according to an updated analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.

“We face threats not only from foreign countries, but also the wear-and-tear of decades of use,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Election officials are largely doing what they can, but recent progress is short of what current circumstances demand.”

Local election officials in 31 states, including Ohio, told Brennan Center researchers that the need to replace equipment before the 2020 election is extremely urgent. Two-thirds of the officials reported they don’t have adequate funds.

Among the concerns: 45 states in part — Ohio among them — use voting equipment that’s no longer manufactured; and 12 states continue to use paperless machines as their primary polling place equipment in at least some counties, making it difficult to verify electronic vote tallies in the event of a hack, or to help identify a hack through a post-election auditing process, according to the report.

Just five states use currently-manufactured voting machines in all jurisdictions, researchers discovered.

Following the detection of interference by Russia during the 2016 presidential race, Homeland Security officials helped states secure election systems to deter election tampering.

Homeland security notified 21 states, including elections officials in Ohio, that Russia had attempted to breach elections systems. Bloomberg later reported that Russian hackers attempted to gain entry to voter databases and software systems in a total of 39 states.

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

The deepest-known 2016 infiltration occurred in Illinois, where the records of up to 76,000 voters were downloaded by what federal investigators said was a Russian cyberattack.

There is no evidence that votes in any state were altered through hacking in 2016 or during the 2018 midterms. But U.S. intelligence officials continue to assert that Russia, China, Iran and other countries are engaged in ongoing efforts to influence U.S. policy and voters in elections.

“The big game we think for the adversaries is probably 2020,” said Chris Krebs, head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security.

States urged to have a paper trail

After the 2016 election, federal authorities urged states to replace aging machines with ones that have a voter-verified paper trail and no wi-fi capability.

Kelly said Montgomery County’s elections equipment is safe from hacking and other steps are taken to ensure election integrity.

“Nothing is hooked to the internet and it’s all dropped into one big ballot box,” she said.

Polling locations are monitored by security on Election Day and after polls close, a sheriff”s deputy accompanies the data back to the Board of Elections, including the unused ballots, which are accounted for in addition to those used, Kelly said.

“There are always security vulnerabilities that we think about,” she said.

Ballots for the new marking devices being delivered to Montgomery County this week use barcodes map to the corresponding oval positions on paper ballots.

Kathryn Petonke, a Miami Twp. voter, worries the feature introduces another vulnerability into the process.

“That seems like it’s an unnecessary thing to bring into our voting system,” she said. “I realize there some problems with any system. There’s always a possibility of problems with any mechanical or electronic machine, but my concern is you certainly don’t want to introduce a whole new aspect of possible vulnerabilities in a system that you spent all this money to purchase and you’re going to have around for years.

Petonke remembers first voting on punch cards and the 70-year-old from Miami Twp. further recalls the levers her mother would pull.

RELATED: Report says voting systems across U.S. need upgrades

Steve Harsman, Montgomery County’s deputy elections director, said the system has been certified both at the federal level and the Ohio Board of Voting Machine Examiners.

“Obviously we are confident in the certification,” he said. “The bar code simply activates the ballot style.”

Ohio elections officials stress that voting machines across the state are never connected to the internet and the state requires that all ballots cast have a paper trail.

Still, for most counties, even without the events of 2016, the machines need to be replaced, elections experts say.

What systems are out there?

Ohio counties make their own decisions about what voting machines to use but may only pick systems that pass federal and state certifications.

Two basic designs have been in place: DRE machines, or direct-recording electronic voting machines with touchscreens and a record printed on paper; optical-scan systems in which the voter physically marks the vote on a paper ballot, which is inserted into a scanner to record the vote.

Now a third option is available: a hybrid that uses a touch screen to mark a ballot, which is printed onto a paper ballot and then fed into an optical scanner.

Most local counties — Champaign, Clark, Miami and Warren — decided to buy systems from Clear Ballot while Montgomery County Board of Elections is going with a hybrid system from ES&S.

The Greene County Board of Elections remains undecided, said Llyn McCoy, the county’s elections director.

“We haven’t narrowed it down to anyone and we haven’t made any decisions yet, but we are hoping to have new machines in place by November,” she said. “We will have a better idea what we are doing at the end of the month.”

Two vendors, ES&S and Dominion Voting Systems, demonstrated their systems earlier this month for Greene County, which figures to get $1.7 million from the state.

Some county officials already have the new machines on hand and are in the process of testing them and training workers how to set up and operate them. Before each election there is a full logic and accuracy check on each voting machine to ensure they’re working as they should before they’re set up in polling places.

Related: Paper ballots most likely to replace touchscreen voting for many Ohioans

Secretary of State: ‘The bad guys only have to be right once’

In Ohio there are 8,912 precincts, more than 35,500 poll workers, roughly 15,000 electronic poll books, more than 25,000 voting machines and 7.8 million registered voters.

Secretary of State LaRose said his office, like any government office, takes the posture that it is always a target.

“It is sort of widely understood that any government computer system is under a consistent and ongoing…the bad guys at any given time are trying to hack in or whatever. So we should just expect that,” LaRose said. “The bad guys only have to be right once, but we have to be right every day. As we speak some bad actor, whether it’s a cyber criminal or a state sponsored entity may be trying to hack into the system and we’re constantly making sure we’re ready to defend against that.”

He declined to detail measures in place to protect systems such as the voter registration database and online registration system. “This is something we take very seriously.”

Despite attempted hacks, leaked political emails, social media manipulations and claims of voter fraud, LaRose’s message is: “Every Ohioan should be confident that we run fair, accessible and secure elections in the state of Ohio. No one should skip their opportunity to participate because of some fear that they have about foreign interaction with our elections.”

Whether Ohioans vote by absentee or in person ballots, LaRose said “Their vote will be accurately counted and when they open their favorite newspaper the next morning, the results will be accurately portrayed there and that’s every Ohioan should participate in each one of our elections.”

Related: Election board fires director after 6,200 ballots weren’t counted

He declined to discuss details of an ongoing investigation in Miami County where the Board of Elections failed to count more than 6,200 ballots cast early in-person at the board office.

“For the citizens of Miami County, we need to restore the trust that they have with their board of election and that’s exactly what we are going to do but we also need to make sure this never happens again in the other 87 counties,” he said. “That’s exactly what this investigation that we’re doing is all about.”

Related: Voting concerns, safety key issues in Ohio secretary of state race

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

How much state money will counties receive to buy new voting systems?

BUTLER: 241,388 voters, $3.25-million

CLARK: 87,873 voters, $1.29-million

CHAMPAIGN: 25,499 voters, $551,000

GREENE: 112,737 voters, $1.7-million

MIAMI: 71,715 voters, $1.09-million

MONTGOMERY: 368,632 voters, $4.76-million

WARREN: 151,904 voters, $2.2-million