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DREIBELBIS: PA Senate Looks at Election Security, Finds It Lacking

Our election systems are vulnerable to error, hacking, and fraud.

This may not be news to you, but it is news that the Pennsylvania Senate is seriously considering new legislation to mitigate the risks.

On March 18, the Pennsylvania Senate House committee on State Government held a hearing regarding the state of the science of securing elections from cybersecurity experts, to be considered for new legislation regarding election security. The Senate committee Chair Chris Dush and Minority Chair Amanda Cappelletti moderated testimony, including questions and answers with three distinguished experts.

It also published written contributions from several sources, including a “Suggested Principles…” document signed by 20 election security experts, which was provided to both the Senate and the House State Government committees.

Often, hearings are held, but no legislation makes it through the long process of becoming law. This one, though, may have a chance. Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee were rapt during the experts’ testimony. No one expressed reluctance to act on the recommendations.

In the hearing, a great deal of time was spent discussing the two incidences of election machine errors in Northampton County using the ExpressVote XL all-in-one ballot marking device. The errors (in two elections) were caused by a mistake in programming how the machine relates the vote entered on its screen to the wrong candidate’s vote tally. No human could verify how the votes were attributed – the paper record of the ballot printed for the voter showed the candidates who received the votes as an unreadable QR code. The ExpressVote XL is also used for Cumberland and Philadelphia Counties.

The recorded testimony and submitted documents provide eye-opening accounts of other vulnerabilities that new legislation could mitigate. I urge all citizens to view the hearing’s recording or read the 11-page linked document if you don’t have 2 hours to view the recording.

On the table are suggestions regarding exposures to (1) voting machine hacks, (2) ballot marking devices (for the disabled), (3) internet and flash drive connectivity, (4) chain of custody gaps, and (5) existing risk-limiting audits.

To summarize the suggested principles, these 20 experts stated, “The vulnerabilities inherent in technology should be counterbalanced by incorporating non-technological verification methods, such as subjecting outcomes to statistically probative audits of the paper ballots.”

The implications of vulnerabilities and mitigation recommendations are very significant.  The chain of custody for mail-in ballots is impossible to secure. These 20 experts recommend that voting should only be done by hand-marking optically scannable paper ballots in their local polling location on Election Day.

But, they recommend that the election management systems be retained and used to scan the ballots and tally the votes.

They say a chain of custody for in-person voting ballots is an exposure.  Not only is it difficult to secure, but Pennsylvania offers no standards for establishing a trusted chain of custody.

Its auditing of voting could be more effective.  In most cases, it is done by re-scanning the election’s ballots with the same machinery without any protections to prevent the “ballot pool” from being polluted by ballots being swapped or added to. The two0 percent risk-limiting audit performed a week after the election by a “return board,” statistically, will always confirm the Election Day results. There needs to be hand-counting of ballots as close to the time and location of voting as possible.

As for computer hacking, our election systems are all designed and certified to meet standards published in 2005, not the revised standards published in 2015 and 2021! Thus, they are wholly unable to stop the emerging threats our election systems face.


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KERNS: Schmidt Confirmation Hearings Provide Disturbing Clues About the Future of Pennsylvania Elections

If you want a foreshadowing of how the 2024 Presidential Election will be conducted in the Commonwealth, you should watch the first day of the confirmation hearing held May 23, 2023 for Al Schmidt, as well as the second day on June 26, 2023.

Schmidt is Gov. Josh Shapiro’s nominee to be Secretary of State.

While the press touts this nomination of a registered Republican by a Democrat administration as an effort at bipartisanship, voters should truly wonder whether Shapiro would have nominated Schmidt unless he was absolutely sure that as Secretary of State, Schmidt would fall in line with the goals and objectives of an elected Democrat governor.  Spoiler alert: get ready for the 2024 Pennsylvania election to be just as “transparent” as Philly in 2020.

Pennsylvania State Senator Cris Dush made clear in his opening remarks at the May 24, 2023 hearing that he considers election integrity a priority, noting, it would be the “….height of arrogance to assume we cannot improve our elections in this Commonweath.” Any reasonable person would agree with this statement – everyone and everything has room for improvement.  However, Al Schmidt may possibly believe otherwise.

After the 2020 Presidential election, when Al Schmidt was one of the three Commissioners in charge of administering elections in Philadelphia, he tweeted, “We just certified the results of the 2020 Presidential Election.  Despite all the meritless litigation and misinformation targeting our electoral system, I’m proud that the birthplace of our Republic held the most transparent and secure election in the history of Philadelphia.” @Commish_Schmidt Nov 23, 2020.

I would like to see Schmidt elaborate on this tweet.  What made the 2020 election the most transparent and secure election in Philadelphia?  Are we to believe that the 2016 election was less transparent and less secure?  For that matter, he mentions Philly’s place as the birthplace of the Republic – what made the rest of the elections in our history less transparent and less secure?  If Schmidt speaks about the 2020 election with such superlatives, does he really think there is any room for improvement, as Senator Dush seems to hope?.

Schmidt should also explain which litigation he deemed so “meritless” that it needed to be called out.  Was he addressing the legal challenges over the satellite election offices that somewhat suddenly popped up in neighborhoods chosen by the Philadelphia City Commissioners, using a slush fund connected to Mark Zuckerberg?  In 2020, Schmidt tweeted he “Applied for, received, completed, and submitted my mail-in ballot at our on-stop-shop satellite election office….” @Commish_Schmidt. Sept 29, 2020. The legal challenges simply asked that watchers be allowed to remain in the satellite election offices to reasonably see and hear what was occurring.  I would like Schmidt to explain what about that is “meritless.”  Schmidt also called the 2020 election the “most transparent.”  How can an election conducted with no observers in the satellite election office where Schmidt himself voted be considered transparent?

Curiously, when confronted by a Trump Campaign official in 2020 about what exactly was happening inside those offices, Schmidt first asked for the opportunity to telephone the city’s lawyers.  When pressed further, Schmidt demurred, stating, “I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer.”  The entire exchange was caught on video, available here.  Perhaps the committee should have questioned Schmidt on why, as a top Philadelphia election official, he could not define what was happening in the satellite election offices because he “was not a lawyer.”

Another lawsuit filed in 2020 challenged the lack of the ability of observers to watch the processing of mail-in ballots due to parade gates erected to keep observers to one side of the mammoth Philadelphia Convention Center.  A witness testified that the barricade kept him at least fifteen feet away from the first row of tables while the last row was over hundred feet away.  While the trial Court denied the request, the Commonwealth Court judge hearing the appeal immediately reversed and ordered that the watcher “be permitted to observe all aspects of the canvassing process within six feet….”

Phialdelphia stopped all counting until a stay was in place that invalidated the Commonwealth Court order, so the observers never did get the chance to get within six feet of the action.  Schmidt should explain why he thinks that lawsuit was “meritless.”  Asking for better visibility to observe the counting seems to be the very definition of the transparency he touts in his tweets.

However, Schmidt seemed to champion the court’s order approving his office’s decision to keep observers who watched ballot counting secluded behind parade gates.  With Schmidt in the Shapiro administration, perhaps this is his version of transparency we can expect in future elections.

Senator Dush and other committee members, to their credit, asked wide ranging questions including many about voter registration, the security of drop boxes, the integrity of the voter rolls, and the persistent problem in Pennsylvania that each county seems to interpret the laws differently, resulting in a frustrating lack of uniformity. However, they just scratched the surface and Schmidt hesitated on more than a few questions in the first hearing, saying his office would supply the information later.

I had hoped that the committee would  follow up on Schmidt’s statement during the first day of hearing that the law “does not permit the Board of Elections to count undated or wrongly dated ballots.”   On May 19, 2023, just five days before his hearing, he filed a brief in federal court, calling the date on the outside of a ballot envelope “immaterial” and stating that it is “a date that absolutely no one can defend as needed for any part of Pennsylvania’s election administration.”

Schmidt clearly agrees with the plaintiffs in that case who believe that undated and wrongly date ballots should be counted, despite the text of the Pennsylvania law.  He should explain why – as well as what other laws he feels are immaterial.  After all, he had no problem dismissing all of the 2020 election litigation as meritless.  It appears when there is a lawsuit that aligns with the priorities of the current Democrat administration, he changes his tune – and even sides with the plaintiffs and against the laws duly enacted by our legislature.

The Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee has now approved Schmidt’s nomination, moving him closer to confirmation.  For the legislators that plan to vote on Schmidt’s confirmation – if we are to improve elections in this Commonwealth, shouldn’t our Secretary of State respect and enforce the laws duly enacted by elected representatives?  The outcome of the 2024 presidential election will likely depend on it.

If Schmidt truly believes that the way the 2020 election was conducted was “…the most transparent and secure election in the history of Philadelphia,” then in 2024, if observers again have no meaningful access to the process and Schmidt as Secretary aligns with Democrat led lawsuits while dismissing any Republican filed litigation as “meritless,” no one should be surprised.

Editor’s Note: Because the full senate did not have a vote, Al Schmidt and two other secretaries, Department of Human Services Secretary Dr. Val Arkoosh and Department of Revenue Secretary Pat Browne were automatically confirmed June 29, as per the state constitution.

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