The ticking time bomb in Pennsylvania's election system

Civil service employee Joe Lynch, center, alongside voting machines in the Philadelphia City Commissioners' warehouse, works on an audit to recount the votes in 75 Philadelphia voting divisions, on Dec. 2, 2016.

OUR STATE'S voting machines are inherently flawed, and they cannot be trusted to accurately record or reflect the votes cast by the people of Pennsylvania.

Whether it happens this month or not, the electronic voting systems in our state must undergo a full forensic evaluation by independent computer security experts. Without that evaluation and subsequent changes both in the machines and the procedures for using them, votes cast for our local, state and federal government will always be at risk for error or manipulation, and we can never be fully certain that the outcomes of our elections reflect the will of the voters.

A number of years ago, I acquired two different electronic voting machines (known as DREs) from government surplus sales - the type used in Philadelphia County and the type used in Montgomery County - and, with Lehigh students, dismantled and examined them. In my assessment, none of the DREs used in Pennsylvania are capable of retaining a permanent physical record of each vote cast, which is required by the Pennsylvania Election Code. Many of the voting machines used in Pennsylvania, including those used in Philadelphia, create no permanent, physical record of each vote cast - in other words, these machines leave no paper trail.

As anyone with a computer knows, data stored electronically is easily lost or corrupted. It would be comforting to think that voting machines are more sophisticated or secure than home or office computers, but in many ways, they are not. They are computers running software like all other computers running software, and they are vulnerable to the same kinds of problems as all of our other computers. Computer memory, including the memory that stores the votes in the voting machines used throughout the last election across Pennsylvania, can be written or rewritten with incorrect data as a result of software, hardware and human error, or as a result of intentional interference.

Voting machines can be tampered with in a number of ways that are virtually undetectable, even when the machines are not connected to the internet. Some of the ways in which voting machines can be compromised only require a screwdriver, a basic knowledge of computers and a few minutes alone with the machine. The memory cartridges used to program the ballot files for an election can likewise be a source of compromise. We cannot be sure that these machines reflect an accurate tally of votes, and we actually have reason to suspect that they might not.

Whether through interference or malfunction, it is completely possible that here, in Pennsylvania, a vote can be cast for one candidate but given to another, without the voter ever being aware of it or a physical record being created which could be later used during an authorized recount to undo the error. For these reasons, other states have banned or are phasing out the electronic voting systems used in Pennsylvania.

Voters need and deserve the best possible systems in place to ensure the validity of our elections, and right now, we simply do not have them. We do not know, yet, if any of the voting machines we use in Pennsylvania were deliberately tampered with, but we do know beyond a doubt that the technology by which we cast our votes is deeply flawed.

Because a recount for these electronic voting machines is simply a review of the raw data retrieved from computer memory, and the memory of these computers could be unreliable, a recount in Pennsylvania will not be enough to determine voters' true intentions. A full forensic evaluation of the machines themselves, as well as their hardware and software, is necessary.

It is understandable that many people see this as an inconvenience, but it is not. It is a necessity. Still, electoral officials would allow the use of these vulnerable and deeply flawed systems to continue unless there is a sustained public outcry against them and a demand for full accountability.

Many of us in the cyber security community who study voting infrastructure have called for reviews and change before, and now the time has come to hold the line. This process has gone back and forth while we have held our breath, but we must insist on action now. Whether we resolve this problem by some arbitrary deadline imposed by our political and judicial systems is irrelevant; Pennsylvanians should keep demanding a full audit of our electoral system and full accountability until every possible action has been taken. The state of Pennsylvania needs a reliable review and audit system for each and every election, not a haphazard follow-up dragged through the court systems when someone raises a question about the legitimacy of a specific case.

The integrity of our democracy depends on our votes, and the integrity of our votes depends on having a secure means by which to cast them. This is vital, and it can wait no longer.

Daniel Lopresti is Professor and Chair of Computer Science and Engineering at Lehigh University. He received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Princeton University and then spent time on the faculty at Brown University and as a research staff member at Bell Labs. He has studied extensively the direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines used throughout Pennsylvania.