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Bi-partisan interest emerges in election security reforms

  • Jordan Wilkie/WITF
State Government Committee co-chairs, Senators Cris Dush and Amanda Cappelletti, close out a hearing on election technology with computer scientists.

 Jordan Wilkie / WITF

State Government Committee co-chairs, Senators Cris Dush and Amanda Cappelletti, close out a hearing on election technology with computer scientists.


Elections technology experts say 20 Pennsylvania counties covering 30% of the state’s voters use voting machines that are vulnerable to malfunction or malfeasance. The experts, who testified on Monday to the Senate’s State Government Committee, critiqued a type of voting machine called a ballot-marking device. 

On those devices, voters use a touchscreen to select their preferred candidates and the machine prints those votes on a ballot card. The experts specifically critiqued an all-in-one model of voting machine that marks the voter’s ballot, records the vote both in a barcode and in text, and then scans and stores the votes. 

That model is used in eight counties, according to the election technology group Verified Voting. By the consensus expert recommendation on the panel, those counties would have to buy new vote counting machines to remedy the security concern. The remaining 12 counties simply need to change the procedures they use with the equipment they already have. 

“We’re already running very good, very secure elections, but there are improvements that can be made in a lot of categories,” said Kevin Skoglund, of the advocacy group Citizens for Better Elections. 

Committee co-chairs, Republican Cris Dush for the majority and Democrat Amanda Cappelletti for the minority, both said they would like to phase out ballot-marking devices and move to hand-marked paper ballots. 

Dush told WITF he supports using state funds to help counties replace their voting technology. Cappelletti told WITF the counties just bought their ballot-marking devices before the 2020 election and it may be appropriate to wait until the machines start to age out before replacing them. Removing ballot-marking devices is unlikely to happen this year. 

Even with an eventual change, some ballot-marking devices will be available for voters with disabilities, as is required by federal law. 

Moving to hand-marked paper ballots is in line with the recommendation of the experts at the hearing and with best practice recommendations for election security made by reputable organizations like the National Academies for Sciences, Engineering and Medicine

“I would like Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania legislature to make progress in moving all counties to hand-marked paper ballots, counted by optical scanners, and with the ability to recount or random-audit as a check on the correct operation of the machines,” said Princeton computer science professor Andrew Appel. 

Most Pennsylvania voters are familiar with this process of filling out a ballot with a pen, inserting that ballot into a machine that scans the votes at the precinct, then having the election’s unofficial results posted online later that evening. Counties then conduct two types of audits before the vote totals are made official. 

Dush discussed concerns about voting systems that record votes in both a barcode and in text. He said an audit that checked to make sure the text matches the barcode would give him increased confidence in those election results. 

One of Pennsylvania’s two post-election but pre-certification audits is called a “risk-limiting audit” and is also recommended by experts on election security as the gold standard. Pennsylvania’s version of that audit uses ballot text, not barcodes, to ensure no potential errors on ballots changed the outcome of the election. 

Northampton County uses ballot-marking devices that have twice faced malfunctions in the voting equipment due to human error, once in 2019 and again in 2023. The Northampton County Democratic and Republican party leaders co-signed a letter asking the state to require hand-marked paper ballots be available to all voters. 

Dush and Cappelletti both supported increased voting machine testing standards before an election to help catch the types of errors that happened in Northampton. 

The Department of State already issued guidance on testing for voting machines before an election, which Skoglund called “a really great document.” The Department of State can only issue guidance on the matter and is limited, compared to the legislature, on what it can require from counties. 

The 2024 legislative session began this week. To make changes based on the expert recommendations, lawmakers would need to write and introduce legislation, get it approved in committee, have the Senate pass the bill, have the House also pass the bill, and send it to the governor to sign. 

Dush organized the hearing. Fellow Republicans Doug Mastriano, Kristin Phillips-Hill and Judy Ward joined for the hearing. All four signed letters asking the U.S. Congress to not certify Pennsylvania’s presidential electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021, despite having no evidence that would call the 2020 results into question.

Senator Anthony Williams joined Cappelletti as the two democrats to participate in the hearing. 

Williams’ first question addressed the trustworthiness of Pennsylvania’s elections. 

“I want to make it very clear, you’re not suggesting that past elections are in doubt in Pennsylvania,” Williams said. 

“Absolutely not,” said Appel. Skoglund and Alec Yasinsac, retired computer science professor at the University of South Alabama, affirmed.

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