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A Vote on the Horizon

The Way America Votes Is Broken. In One Rural County, a Nonprofit Showed a Way Forward.

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A voter passes a voting kiosk as he prepares to vote at a Jackson, Miss., precinct in the party primaries, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. Photo: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

In Mississippi last week, a seamless performance by a new set of voting machines took place amid widespread anxiety about election integrity.

ACKERMAN, Miss. — Choctaw County’s election centers opened at 7 a.m. last Tuesday, and voters were greeted by poll workers who’d just set up brand-new voting machines.

“If you need any help, just holler,” poll worker Albert Friddle told a voter as he walked her through the new system.

She didn’t holler. Using a machine the size of a briefcase, she selected her choices, printed and double-checked her ballot, and dropped it into a secured blue box provided by the county.

Indeed, the day went without anyone hollering.

“Everything went just fine,” said Amy Burdine, Choctaw County circuit clerk. “Just as expected.”

The scene in Mississippi, if modest in its particulars, was seen by some as a telling moment at a time of great anxiety about the accuracy and security of the nation’s voting systems.

Mississippi is one of only a few states in the country to allow the use of voting machines that have not been certified by federal authorities, and the state has no certification process of its own. As a result, the machines at work for the first time in Choctaw County last week were built by VotingWorks — a small nonprofit organization founded by Ben Adida and Matt Pasternack. Adida and Pasternack selected the state both for its regulatory environment and because many counties in the state continue to use paperless voting systems, allowing the company, Adida said, to “very quickly improve the security of voting in Mississippi by reintroducing paper.”

The machines, VotingWorks said, were inexpensive to make, easy to fix and no problem to set up and take down. The hope, the organization said, was to produce shorter lines and more reliable results, a wish that seemed realized on Nov. 5.

“To be on the ground floor of something like this as one of the poorest counties in the state, that’s pretty exciting,” said Wayne McLeod, an election commissioner in Choctaw County.

For VotingWorks and the election officials in Mississippi, the fact that the machines had not been federally certified was a plus, not a risk. Set up nearly two decades ago to try and improve the reliability of voting systems, the federal certification process is today seen by many as an impediment to the kind of technological progress urgently needed in the field.

The process — overseen by the federal Election Assistance Commission — is both lengthy and costly. And the long track record over the years of election scandals and controversies makes clear it hasn’t been all that effective.

“Certification can be a double-edged sword,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “On the one hand, we want and need minimum standards for access and integrity in our voting machines. But on the other hand, certification can be a significant barrier to innovation.”

Experts and election officials across the country have argued that the certification process has helped the small handful of major voting systems companies to dominate without a great incentive to invest in more effective and trustworthy technology.

Last Tuesday, machines made by ES&S, the nation’s largest voting machine company, were at the center of yet another controversy.

In Northampton County, Pennsylvania, voters suffered through long lines only to learn that the voting results were severely inaccurate, forcing a count of paper ballots.

“I’m shaking here. I have no idea if these numbers are right,” Lee Snover, head of the Northampton County Republican Party, told local media last week. The county executive described the situation as a “three-alarm, raging fire.”

The ES&S machines deployed in Northampton County went through more than two years of development and testing before the episode on Election Day. ES&S did not respond to requests for comment or written questions on how it plans to proceed in Northampton.

Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure said that it may be several weeks before the cause of the problem is determined. “It wasn’t great,” he said. “We must fix it.”

In an interview last month, Ben Hovland — vice chairman of the federal voting assistance agency — recognized that the certification process was often too slow to spark innovation. The standards are currently being updated (a process that has dragged on since 2015), which he says is allowing the agency to rethink a variety of issues.

“I think it’s a great time to really step back and look at the process as a whole and see if there are ways that we can make it better, make it more efficient,” he said.

Adida and Pasternack, the VotingWorks officials, said its machines were first tested in Mississippi in a single precinct in Choctaw County during the state’s primaries, monitoring for problems and features that confused voters and poll workers. After the initial trial and a second user test at a retirees potluck lunch, the county election commissioners enthusiastically allowed the company to test the machines countywide during the general election on Tuesday.

“When the other commissioners saw these machines, they said, ‘We want these in November,’” said McLeod, the Choctaw County election commissioner.

VotingWorks machines are housed in a black case, light and easily carried by poll workers, many of whom can be older. The case contains a simple touch-screen tablet that can be purchased off the shelf and that has custom software installed on it. Voters are given a card by a poll worker that has a chip in it loaded with the appropriate ballot, and they install it in a card reader so that their ballot pops up on the touch-screen device. When they finish, they take the card to a separate station and print the ballot. The printing station erases the data on the card, and the voter reviews the ballot for accuracy before inserting it into a thick blue cloth ballot box that can be sealed.

Unlike most voting machines, they did not come with a stand and are meant to be propped up on tables. At polling places in Choctaw County — mostly volunteer fire stations — the machines were sitting on top of folding tables. In others, they were on desks. The machines took poll workers less than two minutes to fully construct, shortening lines and keeping voters calm. Poll workers uniformly said they loved this feature, as it made the machines easier to maneuver and take down.

Adida said the company hasn’t ignored existing standards. “We’ve looked at the aspects of certification that we think are meaningful,” he said.

“The certification process would not have helped us with building something that works for poll workers,” said Adida, who said VotingWorks set out to build a product that poll workers with little training could manage securely and set up easily.

Adida and Pasternack recognize that there is justified trepidation around proceeding with machines that haven’t been formally certified, but they said that they are confident that their process will result in a more secure, affordable and user-friendly machine.

“I’ve never seen any technology product built that’s great for users if the users don’t get to touch it for the first two years of development,” Pasternack said.

This article was originally published by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

A Vote on the Horizon

Mobile Voting Increased Turnout for This State, But Is It Secure?

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Photo: Adobe Stock

West Virginia made waves in 2018 when it became the first state in the country to allow some residents to vote using a mobile phone app. 

new study released last month by the University of Chicago finds West Virginia’s mobile voting pilot program increased voter turnout by three to five percentage points. 

The research was funded by Tusk Philanthropies, an organization that advocates for mobile voting. The group also paid for West Virginia counties to offer the mobile voting option in the 2018 pilot program.

“What I found is that having mobile voting available as an option increased the number of overseas voters who requested ballots by six to nine percentage points,” said study author Anthony Fowler of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. 

Evaluating West Virginia’s Mobile Voting Pilot

The research compared voter turnout for uniformed overseas absentee voters in 24 counties that offered the mobile voting option with those who did not have that available.

In the 2018 primary, West Virginia offered a mobile voting option for uniformed overseas absentee voters from Harrison and Monongalia counties. For the general election, the option was offered to all 55 counties, but only 24 signed on. According to the Secretary of State’s office, 144 voters from 21 counties ultimately cast a ballot in the 2018 general election using mobile voting. 

“It appeared to increase voter turnout by about three to five percentage points,” Fowler said. “So it looks like mobile voting did, in fact, increase participation for those eligible overseas voters.”

But Fowler also noted in the same study that serious concerns over mobile voting do exist. He surveyed voters to measure their level of confidence in various voting methods. 

According to the study, voters are wary of online voting — including casting a ballot on a mobile device. Of all voting methods, those surveyed said they had the least confidence in online ballots being counted correctly. 

West Virginia’s pilot — which was the first to employ a mobile voting in a federal election — allowed some overseas military voters to use an app called Votaz to cast a ballot. 

Secretary of State Mac Warner has heralded the pilot as a success, but elections and cybersecurity experts say they have concerns over the integrity of any kind of internet-facing election system — especially after Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 

Mobile Voting Security Concerns

Designed by the Boston-based company Voatz, the mobile voting app uses blockchain technology and biometric face scans as security features.

Despite the accessibility and security offered, election security experts have warned of any system that connects to the internet has the potential to be hacked. At the same time, the Secretary of State’s office and other advocates for mobile voting say the option is safer than fax or email — the only other electronic options made available for uniformed overseas absentee voters.

Voatz has come under scrutiny for not allowing computer and elections experts a chance to evaluate the platform like other election systems have been. 

In a paper published in May by the University of South Carolina, technology and elections experts took issue with various aspects of the Voatz platform arguing, in part, that the company hasn’t yet released information from security audits to the public. 

“While much of this secrecy might be understandable for an ordinary business product and service, it should not be acceptable in a public voting system whose details should be transparent to voters, candidates and the public at large,” the paper states.

Tusk Philanthropies: Funding Mobile Voting Rollouts, Research

Fowler’s study was supported by Tusk Philanthropies, an organization that advocates for mobile voting options. The organization has a section of its website dedicated to mobile voting and argues that dismal voter turnout leads to the electorate not being properly represented in various levels of government. 

“[N]early 80% of U.S. adults already carry another way to vote in their pockets: their phone. Blockchain makes mobile voting safer than paper ballots and if we gave people another way to participate in elections without having to find a polling place, wait in line, and deal with all of the hassles of the current system, turnout will increase exponentially,” Tusk’s website states.

The organization, led by businessman and venture capitalist Bradley Tusk, also footed the bill for West Virginia counties who wanted to take part in the 2018 mobile voting pilot. According to Tusk Philanthropies President Sheila Nix, the organization spent $150,000 for West Virginia counties to offer the mobile voting option for the pilot program. 

Despite this relationship and Tusk’s advocacy on the subject, Fowler argues Tusk’s grant to the university did not influence his research.

“If you read the paper, you’ll see that I do not explicitly advocate for mobile voting. I point out some benefits of mobile voting and I also point out some concerns about mobile voting in my paper,” he said. “As a researcher, I’m committed to reporting honestly the results of my analysis — whatever I find.”

Representatives of Tusk also say the research aspect goes hand-in-hand with their mission to boost voter turnout by testing mobile voting.

“On the one hand, we are funding pilots to test the blockchain technology,” Nix said about Tusk’s involvement on the issue. “We’re also doing academic research to see the effect on voter turnout. I don’t find anything problematic about it.”

The Future of Mobile Voting in West Virginia and Elsewhere

As security audits on the Voatz app continue, Warner and his staff have deemed the mobile voting pilot a success. General Counsel Donald Kersey says the pilot served its purpose in making it easier for uniformed overseas absentee voters to cast a ballot.

“Ignoring the research paper itself, we already deemed the pilot a success because we did our audits. We did audits, we had security assessments done on the back end to look at the system itself — not the votes themselves, but the technology and the security on the back end,” Kersey said. “And we have the audits and reports from that. We also have testimony from people that use the system who said, ‘I would not have been able to vote had it not been for this application.’ That’s why we’re offering it.”

Kersey also said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will also conduct an audit on the Voatz app. He said those findings will be released to the public but with redactions of sensitive information related to any vulnerabilities found. 

As it stands now, the only voters able to make use of the option are uniformed overseas absentee voters. The West Virginia Legislature would need to take action in order for mobile voting to be used by a wider population.

Tusk Philanthropies and Voatz say they are moving forward and continuing to run pilot programs in various elections around the United States.

The city of Denver held a municipal election this year and offered its own mobile voting pilot to uniformed overseas absentee voters. Provo, Utah, is also deploying its own pilot for the same population in its own municipal election in 2019. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A Vote on the Horizon

With Rallies, Sit-ins and Arrests, West Virginia Becomes a Flashpoint in the Debate Over Healthcare

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As the debate over proposed legislation on health care heats up, West Virginia has been a flashpoint of opposition to a Republican-lead plan — with protests, rallies and sit-ins. With a high population of low-income residents, the increased grip of the opioid crisis and the fate of 184,100 Medicaid enrollees who would lose coverage under the GOP health care bill in West Virginia, the state serves as a go-to example for explaining what the plan might mean for the rest of America.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score released Monday, 15 million fewer Americans will be insured next year under the bill. That number is expected to reach 22 million by 2026 – about a million fewer than a similar plan proposed by the House of Representatives.

On a tour promoted as an attempt to stop Americans losing health care coverage, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders was the featured speaker at a Sunday afternoon rally in Charleston, the state’s capitol. Members of 13 activist groups — including West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, West Virginians for Affordable Health Care and Planned Parenthood South Atlantic — urged attendees to call their congressional representatives and tell them to vote against legislation that would overhaul the Affordable Care Act.

“If either version passes, the effects will have a crippling impact on communities all throughout our great state,” said Josh Sword of the West Virginia American Federation of Labor.

Sword was referring to versions of the health care overhaul that have recently been drafted by the House and Senate, respectively.

“Hospitals, drug treatment facilities and countless other specialized care providers will have to close their doors due to the loss of federal funding to the system,” Sword said.

Attendees at the Charleston rally directed chants at Republican U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, asking her to vote against the Senate bill. Capito has said that she has “concerns” with the way the legislation is written, but hasn’t yet said how she plans to vote. With four senators currently opposing the bill, Capito’s decision on the matter becomes increasingly pivotal. 

Speakers at the Sunday event covered aspects of health care that would be impacted by the proposed legislation such as Medicaid expansion, substance abuse treatment and the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage to those with preexisting conditions.

Sanders came on stage about an hour into the program to a wildly enthusiastic audience.

“The legislation that is coming before the Senate in a few days, the so-called health care bill, will be the most devastating attack on the working class of this country in the modern history of the United States of America,” Sanders said to rousing applause.

Sanders has been increasingly present in West Virginia, talking health care and other issues affecting working class rural citizens. With multiple visits since winning the state’s Democratic Primary in May 2016 — before losing out on the party’s nomination to Hillary Clinton — Sanders’ presence on Sunday served as a lead-up to even more health care-related news.

On Monday, six West Virginians were arrested after holding a sit-in at Capito’s Charleston office where they urged her to vote against the legislation.

“Senator Capito has refused to attend multiple town hall meetings around the state on healthcare, let alone any other issue. She will not meet publicly with her constituents whose lives will be directly affected – and made worse — by this bill. That’s why I am here today – to ask Senator Capito to hear our stories and to vote against this immoral legislation,” said Joe Solomon, who was among those arrested after spending nearly six hours in Capito’s office.

Monday’s arrests at the sit-in at Capito’s office came as the CBO’s evaluation of the Republican health care bill that originated in the Senate. As the analysis came in, many in Congress used the score to weigh in again on how they plan to vote.

“In early May, the House of Representatives passed a healthcare bill that President Trump said had no heart and now Senate Republicans have proposed a bill that has no soul. Republicans wrote this bill behind closed doors, without input from their constituents, Democrats and even from members of their own party,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a news release issued Monday afternoon.

Manchin also criticized the Senate bill’s tax cuts for the wealthy and alluded to the CBO’s analysis that states “few low-income people would purchase any plan.”

“I have said from the beginning that I want to be a partner in making healthcare more affordable and accessible for our state. I stand ready to work with anyone to do that, but this bill makes things worse not better, and I cannot support it,” Manchin said.

The Senate could vote on the proposed legislation as early as this week, before the July 4th recess. Critics argue the timeline on such a vote is too hasty, while supporters hope to push the bill through.

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