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Security Experts Express Concern Over Electronic System To Check-In At Polling Places


With so much of our lives done by computer, it's no surprise more and more states are turning to them on Election Day, helping check people in faster at polling stations. As NPR's Miles Parks reports, along with the convenience, the technology also brings security risks.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: From 8 a.m. to noon last Election Day, voting in Johnson County, Ind., ground to a halt. Lines at precincts across the county swelled.

CINDY RAPP: There were hundreds of people standing in line - absolutely.

PARKS: That's Cindy Rapp. She's the Democratic member on the Johnson County Election Board. The county votes using electronic voting machines, but they weren't what caused the issue. The problem was with the systems poll workers were using to check people in. They're called electronic poll books. They moved the check-in process from the big book of names it used to be in to a laptop computer or tablet. But like in all aspects of the elections world, there are big questions about security and reliability when you switch from paper records to electronic ones.

e-Poll books are often connected to the Internet, and that makes them significantly more vulnerable to a cyberattack than paper records. At this point, there are no federal regulations or even voluntary guidelines for how these e-poll books need to work.

JOE HALL: Which means that a lot of the stuff that happens to cross the T's and dot the I's in a regular voting system certification to make sure it's suitable for an election just don't happen.

PARKS: Joe Hall is the senior technologist for the Center for Democracy & Technology. I asked him and his colleague, Maurice Turner, to look over the third-party report of what happened in Johnson County and walk me through it. There were a number of issues. First, the company in charge of maintaining the poll books didn't provide enough bandwidth for the Election Day crowd. That caused the poll books to slow down to the point where they were barely working. Rapp says poll workers weren't able to give frustrated voters answers.

RAPP: And there's no one voting on the machines, so they know it's not the machines. And, you know, all we can say is, oh, it's computers. And people weren't happy. People had to leave and go to work.

PARKS: To get around the problem, the company maintaining the system basically disconnected the poll books from each other. In Johnson County, voters can cast their ballot at any polling place, but the e-poll books have to be able to communicate so people don't vote twice. To get over the technical hurdle, the company disabled that security feature. Had voters wanted to vote twice in Johnson County at different locations, they could have. Here's Maurice Turner from the Center for Democracy & Technology.

MAURICE TURNER: It would be like if someone was going to the airport and they got to the security checkpoint, and then all of a sudden, those lines were overloaded. If you just turned off all the metal detectors, obviously, you can get people through much more quickly. But the more secure way to do it is actually to open up more lines with more metal detectors.

PARKS: Johnson County terminated their contract with the company after Election Day, and they're going to use a different company going forward. But what happened there was an example of how much havoc can be caused with a hitch in this part of the voting system even though these machines don't actually affect election tallies. Election supervisors say they do offer huge benefits, especially faster check-in times.

DENISE MERRILL: It's so much less work and so much more accurate, really, than doing things by hand.

PARKS: That's Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill. Four years ago, she got her state's legislature to provide money to get electronic poll books for every voting jurisdiction in the state. Her office took proposals from companies hoping to provide the technology. And she took them to the University of Connecticut's voting technology center for recommendations.

MERRILL: They came back to us and said we don't feel comfortable with any of these being entirely secure.

PARKS: So Merrill didn't let local officials use state money to buy the technology. But she's optimistic the products will improve. In general, she worries about jumping into this technology too quickly.

MERRILL: But it's like, anything in elections, there's a risk-reward ratio, I guess I'd say. And, no, I don't think there has been a thorough conversation of the risks inherent but - and also the benefits of electronic poll books.

PARKS: The thing is, Merrill says, once governments have spent the money on this new technology, they're not eager to hear what's wrong with it. Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.