Ahead of November Election, Virginia Scraps Use of 'Hackable' Voting Machines

Sep 11, 2017

 

Hackers participate in the compute science conference DefCon in Las Vegas in 2011. At this year's conference, hackers attempted to break into various voting machines.
Credit Isaac Brekken / AP

 

With only two months until election day, officials in Virginia have decided fully-electronic voting machines aren’t safe. Amid growing cyber-security threats, the Board of Elections is forcing localities to stop using the of the touch screen machines that leave no paper trail.

Concerns grew this summer when a group of hackers met at a conference in Las Vegas and proved they could easily break into certain voting machines. After reading news reports of the DefCon hacks, officials in Virginia realized many of those same machines are still used here in the Commonwealth.

Virginia’s Department of Elections quickly ordered its own testing. In August, the state’s IT agency rounded up some of the machines and conducted their own review. In a letter sent to localities, the Commissioner at the Department of Elections Edgardo Cortés notified localities.

Two weeks later, the results of that review concerned Cortés enough that he called an emergency meeting of the Board of Elections. Results of the review weren’t made public and the Board went into closed session Friday to hear the details.

Alex Blakemore with Virginia Verified Voting has long advocated for the machines to be decertified. While he hasn’t seen what the latest testing shows, he does remember the results of a similar security review back in 2015.

“The machines were unbelievably vulnerable. They had wifi on them which, why would you want wifi on a voting machine?” Blakemore asked. “You could hack in remotely, the password was abcde.”

While those particular models were scrapped right away, state lawmakers gave localities until 2020 to get rid of any others.  But in a surprise move Friday, the Board followed the recommendation of the commissioner and voted unanimously to immediately decertify all the machines.

That means localities that thought they had three more years to find replacements, now have two months.

Cities and counties in red still use the machines that officials say pose a security threat to elections. The Board has told localities they must replace the systems ahead of this November's gubernatorial election.
Credit Courtesy of Department of Elections

Most precincts in Virginia are in the clear, they’ve already switched over to the new industry standard: paper ballots that are scanned in via an optical machine.

But as of Friday, 22 localities still use the touch-screen machines that are now no longer allowed. According to the Department of Elections, nine of those localities already have plans to purchase new machines.

That leaves 13 localities with an unexpected financial burden midway through the fiscal year. Depending on the size of the locality, costs could run as high as a $250,000.

The Department of Elections say they have already contacted vendors of replacement machines and know there is stock available. They say the vendors have also agreed to a payment plan to help ease the burden for local governments.

Walt Latham is Vice President of the Registrars Association, and he says while the new deadline is short, registrars have long known this is coming.

“They’re going to do what it takes to make it work because there’s no one in Virginia who cares more about the integrity of the election process than the people who wake up everyday working in it,” said Latham.

 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.