US election 2016: Background

Pennsylvania voters will use 1980s machines, made by firms that no longer exist, that produce no paper record of their vote. What could go wrong?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 1:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 7:16pm

When the United States goes to the polls on November 8, voters in Pennsylvania will be touching the lighted buttons on electronic vote counters that were once seen as the solution to messy paper ballots.

But in the event of a disputed election, this battleground state — one of the few that relies almost entirely on computerised voting, with no paper backup — could end up creating a far bigger mess.

Stored in a locked warehouse near downtown Harrisburg, the 1980s-era voting machines used by Dauphin County look like discarded washing machines lined up in rows. When unfolded and powered up, the gray metal boxes become a familiar-looking voting booth, complete with a curtain for privacy.

Much may rest on the reliability and security of these ageing machines after an unprecedentedly combative presidential campaign that is ending with Donald Trump warning repeatedly of a “rigged election” and his refusal at last Wednesday’s debate to commit to accepting the results.

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The Republican presidential nominee has specifically targeted Pennsylvania as a state where the election may be “stolen,” despite no evidence to back up such a claim and several polls showing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton well ahead of him here.

The nightmare scenario would be if Pennsylvania decides the election and it is very close. You would have no paper records to do a recount
Lawrence Norden, author of report on old voting machines

“The only way we can lose,” he said at a recent rally in Altoona, “is if cheating goes on.”

Trump’s talk has put extra pressure on election officials to make sure the voting is free and fair, and the tally is accurate and reliable. And there is little reason to doubt it will be.

But computer experts say the old electronic voting machines have a flaw that worries them in the event of a very close election. The machines do not produce a paper ballot or receipt, leaving nothing to be recounted if the election outcome is in doubt, such as in 2000, when the nation awaited anxiously for Florida to re-examine those hanging chads.

“The nightmare scenario would be if Pennsylvania decides the election and it is very close. You would have no paper records to do a recount,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Centre for Justice’s Democracy Programme, co-author of a report last year on the risk posed by old voting machines.

About three-fourths of the nation’s voters will be marking paper ballots, most of which will be counted electronically by optical scanners, said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that has advocated for paper ballots that can be counted electronically and recounted by hand to ensure trust in a close election.

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California and most of the battleground states — Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia among them — have switched to voting systems with a paper trail.

By contrast, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina entrust their votes entirely to electronic touch-screens.

Pennsylvania is among those states that rely almost entirely on computerised voting, according to Verified Voting. But the technology is woefully old-fashioned.

“Pennsylvania is using technology from the 1980s made by the companies that don’t exist anymore. In computer years, that’s a very long time ago,” Smith said.

Pennsylvania election officials say they are well aware of the challenges.

Gerald Feaser Jr, elections director for Dauphin County, agrees the older voting machines “are not sophisticated,” but he said that may be virtue. “They can’t be hacked,” he said, because they were never connected to the Internet.

“Could the Russians hack our website on election night? Yes,” he said. But nearly 500 voting machines across the county would be untouched and their vote tallies unaffected, he said.

Michael Korns, the Republican chairman in Westmoreland County in western Pennsylvania, says he sees “no reason to be concerned” about the fairness of the vote counting. “I don’t believe there is any danger in the election being ‘rigged.’ That’s just what people say when you lose,” he said.