The House of Representatives held a hearing on election security featuring the top three vendors of voting machines along with experts in the field to support their bill on federal election security. The bill mandates the use of voter-verified paper ballots printed on recycled paper manufactured in the U.S., that will be made available to the voter for inspection and verification before voting.
The bill called Securing America’s Federal Elections Act or SAFE Act authorizes federal funding for further election security and upgrading of voting equipment. It also stipulates detailed requirements for voting systems and paper ballots. The bill passed the House in June by a vote of 225–184. Only one Republican voted in favor of it. All the “no” votes came from Republicans, and a Senate committee is currently reviewing the bill.
Republicans opposing the bill stated that it was meant to take over elections from the states federally, according to The Hill. As an alternative, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), a Ranking Member of the Committee on House Administration introduced the Election Security Assistance Act that also requires the National Intelligence and other agency to develop a strategy for countering foreign interference. It also provides resources for states to upgrade their voting systems without requiring paper ballots.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the Chairperson of the Committee on House Administration who initiated the SAFE Act, hopes that the congressional hearing would help the Senate to pass the bill.
The purpose of the bill, according to the Committee on House Administration website, is “to secure America’s elections by providing funding for states to replace outdated and vulnerable voting equipment, mandate paper ballot voting systems, risk-limiting post-election audits and … strict cybersecurity requirements for election technology vendors and voting systems.”
Congress allocated $425 million for election security for 2020; however, Lofgren said that “more can and should be done,’ in a statement. The SAFE Act authorizes a $600 million grant to State and local election officials to replace “aging voting machines with voter-verified paper ballot voting systems,” a $175 million grant in biannual funding to maintain state election infrastructure, and a $5 million grant to study and report on an accessible paper ballot verification system for “individuals with disabilities, voters with difficulties in literacy, and voters whose primary language is not English.”
The states that use grants to replace their voting machines should also ensure that the new system provides ranked voting choice functionality. That means that each voter can vote for multiple candidates for a particular office by assigning a different rank to each candidate.
The act also mandates States to perform risk-limiting audits using manual counting of a certain number of ballots combined with statistical methods to determine any breach to election integrity due to either a cyber attack or a programming error. It also requires that States use only voting machines manufactured in the United States and prohibits connecting any voting system or device to the internet or other communication networks.
Davis said during the hearing, his focus is on: “effective oversight of our nation’s elections, which are maintained by the states, not the federal government. But that does not mean that this committee, and the house itself, does not have an important oversight role to play in securing elections.”
Voting Machine Vendors Testify
The CEO’s of the top three U.S. vendors of voting systems, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Dominion Voting Systems, and Hart InterCivic, testified before the Committee and agreed to support five security requirements for the voting machine vendors posed by Lofgren related to:
– cybersecurity practices and procedures,
– reporting any cyber-attacks, they experienced,
– personnel policies and especially background checks and cyber attack prevention,
– details of corporate ownership and foreign investment,
– supply chains, for example, where parts or software come from, how they are kept secure.
The testifying vendors, who, according to Lofgren “provide [together] at least 80% of the estimated 350 thousand voting machines in use today,” offer voting technology solutions to produce paper records and some also sell paperless voting machines.
President and CEO of Hart InterCivic Julie Mathis, whose company offers paperless voting machines, said in her testimony that these machines are secure and have been federally certified through the Election Assistance Commission, accredited labs. They comply with “extensive” security standards and protocols.
Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D- N.C.) asked Tom Burt, the President and CEO of ES&S about the voting machines his company sells. The machines can operate in an auto-cast mode that allows the voter to skip the verification of the paper record. Burt answered that he believes that no customers use the machines in auto-cast mode, and they all “present the ballot back to the voter for verification … either through a screen or by kicking out the piece of paper.”
Both Lofgren and Davis raised concerns about the supply chain used by voting system manufacturers that may pose a security risk to the final product. It turned out that all three vendors use specific components that come from China. Final products manufactured by ES&S has “one of the nine programmable logic devices” that are sourced from a U.S.–based company and produced in its factory in China. Dominion and Hart use components from China in different parts of their products like glass screens or chip components like capacitors and resistors.
President and CEO of Dominion Voting Systems John Poulos said that it would not even be feasible to manufacture these components in the U.S.
Another factor that potentially compromises the security of voting machines is internet access. All three vendors said that their voting machines do not have any remote capability installed. However, two vendors provide tabulators with the capability to plug-in an external modem to transmit “unofficial results after polls close” as required by certain states. However, to mitigate the risk, the modems only work on a private network and are blocked from accessing the public internet.
Experts Provide Opinions and Recommendations
Experts who testified before the Committee advocated using hand paper ballots that would be scanned by an optical ballot reader. Expert witness, Dr. Matt Blaze, who is the McDevitt chair of computer science and a professor of law at Georgetown University. He also co-founded the DEFCON Voting Village international computer security “hacker” conference.
Blaze said that the most risky are paperless voting machines. Ballot marking devices originally used to assist voters with disabilities can be compromised. Then they can, “subtly mismark candidate selections on ballots in a way that might not be noticed by most voters, and that could undetectably change election outcomes,” said Blaze in his statement.
Blaze recommends paper ballot forms that are filled in manually by voters and subsequently read by optical scanning devices (with the help of an assistive ballot marking device for voters with disabilities or language impaired) while retaining paper ballots for future audits. The scanning device will produce electronic tally records that can be read after the polls close to calculate the result.
Besides, Blaze stresses the importance of conducting risk-limiting audits by manually counting a random sample of paper ballots selected with the aid of a statistically rigorous method.
Dr. Juan Gilbert, Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor, and Chair of computer and information science at the University of Florida said that studies show: “that people, did not, verify their ballots, [the studies] didn’t say, they could not, verify their ballots.” Gilbert cited the Michigan study where voters were reminded “to review their ballot,” and the percentage of people who do verification “goes up to like 70 percent,” added Lofgren. Gilbert recommends to say to voters, “would you please verify that your, ‘ballot selections were not changed,’ rather than, ‘review your ballot.’”
“Currently, there’s no known way to secure a digital ballot. At this time, any election that is paperless is not secure,” said Gilbert in a statement.
Therefore, “Elections should be conducted with human-readable paper ballots,” that can be marked either by hand or by a ballot-marking device and counted either by hand or by an optical scanner, Gilbert said.
He also provided an example showing that using a ballot marking device for voters with disabilities can make a potential cyberattack effective. In 2016 there were 16 million voters with disabilities, but “the margin of victory [was] less than 3 million votes”, said Gilbert. By targeting only ballot marking devices, an adversary can potentially alter the election results, Gilbert concluded. He recommended a universal design of voting machines that can be used by all voters, including those with disabilities.