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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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PA House GOP Prepares To Get Tough On Prison Escapes

Convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante’s escape from the Chester County Prison has people increasingly concerned about security at county jails.

In recent months, inmates also escaped Philadelphia and Warren County jails.

Several state House Republicans have teamed up to introduce a package of bills designed to make county prisons more secure. The five bills would provide funding to upgrade security and health infrastructure (including heating and air conditioning); increase staff by allowing jails to hire other county corrections officers or state corrections officers to fill vacant shifts; eliminate parole for inmates who escape or attempt escape; require Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) to conduct a security audit of county jails that have experienced a jail escape; and create an alert system to be activated in the event of a prison escape.

Rep. Craig Williams (R-Chester/Delaware) said the state needs to send the counties more resources to improve their jails and help with staffing shortages.

“Pennsylvanians deserve to know that our county jails are safe and secure, and we must do more to improve working conditions for our county corrections officers to enhance recruitment and fill staffing shortages,” said Williams, who is sponsoring legislation to require that a more significant portion of the savings from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) be directed to fund Pennsylvania’s county jails to improve security and promote the safety of inmates and staff.

“The bill I will be introducing will provide needed state resources to assist counties in keeping communities safe, securing county jails, and providing for our county corrections officers who put their lives on the line to keep some of the most dangerous criminals among us in custody,” Williams said.

Stressing the importance of preventing repeated escapes from county jails, Rep. John Lawrence (R-Chester) said his legislation would require the DOC to investigate any prison escape at a county prison and make recommendations to prevent future incidents.

Before Cavalcante’s escape on Aug. 31, another inmate used the same method to break out in May. He was caught within minutes because a tower guard spotted him.

“Any jailbreak from a county prison demands a thorough review from experts at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the State Police,” said Lawrence. “Repeated escapes from the same county-run facility cannot be tolerated, and failures in county prison administration must be addressed to prevent future catastrophes.”

“My proposal will require the Department of Corrections to conduct a full security and staffing review at any county jail that experiences an escape or attempted escape, working in cooperation with local officials, the State Police, and other law enforcement officials that the department believes should participate,” Lawrence said. “Following this review, the Department of Corrections will be required to issue a report that includes specific recommendations to address the flaws in security or staffing that helped facilitate the escape or attempted escape and follow up to ensure compliance.”

Rep. Mike Stender (R-Northumberland/Montour) will be introducing legislation to create the Pennsylvania Dangerous Inmate or Escapee Alert System (DIEAS), which will assist in protecting impacted communities and capturing dangerous inmates when they escape from incarceration through prompt notification to the general public, appropriate law enforcement and other public agencies. The Pennsylvania State Police will run the DIEAS system.

“This simple alert system, like an Amber Alert, will notify local communities when an inmate escapes, their description, and any other useful information that can enhance community safety and the swift recapture of an escaped inmate,” said Stender.

To deal with staffing shortages at county jails, Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) will introduce legislation to allow county jails to hire off-duty staff from other county jails or the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to bolster county jail staffing where shift vacancies arise.

“A persistent problem facing county jail facilities is the lack of trained staff to undertake the important public safety function of keeping inmates at county jail facilities in custody,” Delozier said. “With having SCI Camp Hill in my district, I know our state corrections officers are hardworking, highly trained, and skilled in securing inmates. We need to break down existing barriers and get government out of the way so those already trained in prison security can assist in bolstering staff complements, keeping inmates in jail, and ensuring our communities are safe from prison escapes.”

Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren/Forrest) will offer legislation as part of this package to prohibit inmates who have escaped or attempted to escape county jail custody from being eligible for parole to make escape attempts less enticing.

“When inmates face less than significant consequences for escaping or trying to escape custody, sometimes the risk is worth the reward,” Rapp said. “The Legislature can and should use every legislative tool to ensure inmates are completely disincentivized from attempting escape. The recent and unacceptable pattern of county jail escapes in the last several months shows now is the perfect time to reevaluate how we are punishing county jail escapes and attempted escapes.”

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Faced With Increasing Crime, Businesses Turn to Private Security Firms

In reaction to increased crime in Philadelphia, it has been widely reported a Philadelphia gas station owner has hired security guards toting AK-47s to protect his property, customers, and employees.

With 500 murders in Philadelphia as of Dec. 19 and 562 homicides last year, the state legislature has gotten involved with the House impeaching progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner and the Senate set for an impeachment trial in January.

And the Delaware Valley suburbs are not immune to violent criminal incidents.

On Dec. 18, an armed hit-and-run suspect got into a shootout with police near the King of Prussia Mall. An attempted carjacking has occurred at the Willow Grove Mall, and a driver was gunned down in a road-rage shooting in Springfield.

Tehlair Strong, a managing member of Eyewatch Protection, said his business is growing.

“We offer armed security patrol services and armed and unarmed guards,” he said. Typical customers are businesses and apartment complexes. They monitor various sites in the greater Philadelphia area.

“Everything that requires long-term security,” he said. “We’ve done exceptionally well” for the last few years, he said. “Even during the pandemic. Most of our clients are proactive and they’d rather have security than an incident.”

The private security industry began seeing rapid growth increase in 2010. Since then, the industry has continued to grow exponentially each year, explained Joseph Ferdinando of Building Security Services. He said it is now a $350 billion market, with $282 billion spent in the private sector and another $69 billion spent by the federal government.

More than $200 billion of the $282 billion spent in the private sector is heading to non-IT (information technology) sources. More than $80 billion is being spent on IT-related sources of security.

The City of Brotherly Love is also being hit by the national surge in organized retail crime (ORC), much of it driven by gangs.

According to United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade (USA-IT), in 2021 alone retail thefts in Pennsylvania totaled nearly $5.6 billion and cost more than $510 million in state and local taxes. In a recent DVJournal podcast, Alex Baloga with the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association talked about how “sophisticated” retail crimes like shoplifting and smash-and-grab robberies have become.

And, Baloga said, criminals take advantage when communities decline to enforce laws against these property crimes, moving from place to place. “We have seen where laws have been relaxed, there have been more brazen acts. These are organized, sophisticated criminals, not an average person who’s just down on his luck.”

Paul Levy, president of the Center City District in Philadelphia, said his organization had taken steps to help its member businesses combat crime. They included uniformed security guards and outreach to homeless people in the area.

By mid-fall, the CCD expanded its team of unarmed, uniformed safety ambassadors, known as Community Service Representatives (CSRs), from 42 to 50. It raised salaries for the CSRs in the spring. They “provide a friendly, helpful and highly recognizable presence on downtown sidewalks for more than three decades.”

The CCD is also expanding its bicycle safety patrol that works with the CSR program and the Philadelphia Police Department. As of September, CCD increased the uniformed bike patrols manned by Allied Universal, which operate seven days per week in two shifts, to more than 45 positions.

“So far this year, Part 1 (serious crimes) in CCD are 8.7 percent below 2019 levels,” Levy said. “It may not feel that way because headlines are focused on other stories and other major challenges like retail theft and a citywide epidemic of gun violence that remains appallingly high. But these too are problems within our control — amenable to a two-handed approach that brings law enforcement together with social services and job opportunities.”

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Ballot Drop Boxes Continue to Raise Eyebrows in Delco, Bucks

Some Delaware County residents are raising the alarm about ballot boxes that cameras may not properly tape. However, county officials insist there are not any problems.

Radnor resident Liz Madden has been going to the ballot boxes to see if the camera angles line up and found some in Radnor and Haverford townships do not.

She spoke at a recent county Board of Election meeting.

“I am concerned about four drop boxes in Radnor and Haverford. These cameras don’t see the slots in the drop boxes,” said Madden. People are only allowed to deposit one ballot for themselves unless they have a signed permission form from someone in their household who is disabled.

She asked county officials to make sure the drop boxes are aligned with the cameras.

“If Delaware County is committed to fair and honest elections, (officials should) monitor how many ballots one person puts in the drop boxes,” she said. The drop boxes that are not being correctly monitored should be closed.

Joy Schwartz was also concerned about the drop boxes and referred to an article in Broad + Liberty where John McBlain, a member of the Board of Elections, discussed deficient monitoring of the drop boxes.

“The county received a $2.1 million election integrity grant,” Schwartz said, asking that “some of the money be used for surveillance” at the 40 drop boxes in Delaware County.

That many drop boxes are “more than any other county,” she said. “Most of them are in heavily Democratic areas.”

Voter Services Director Jim Allen denied the drop boxes are in majority Democratic areas, saying there is one in every municipality. And Allen also denied McBlain’s contention that there are problems with monitoring of the video feeds from the drop boxes.

A county spokesman also told Delaware Valley Journal that Madden is wrong about the issues with the drop box camera angles.

In Chester County recently, after residents sued over voters putting multiple ballots into drop boxes, the county agreed to watch its drop boxes more closely, limit the hours and locations of them, and require human monitors.

Wally Zimolong, attorney for the plaintiffs along with America First Legal, said, “The reasons stated on the record were express representations by the Board of Elections that it would institute monitors, limited drop box hours, and a policy to assure only authorized agents of disabled persons were returning ballots that did not belong to them. These were all requested in our petition. So, there was nothing left for the Court to award or enjoin.

Zimolong added, “The judge excoriated the county. He commended us for bringing suit and stated that the board would never have done what it did without our litigation. Indeed, it was five days after the lawsuit that the board decided to change course.

“In sum, it was a complete victory for election integrity. I cannot underscore the importance of the win,” said Zimolong.

In Montgomery County, after videos showed a Democratic Party committeewoman dropping multiple ballots into a drop box in Upper Dublin for the November 2021 election, the county took steps to improve security, with both cameras and human monitors. Republican Chair Liz Havey brought that video to the attention of District Attorney Kevin Steele.

The hours and number of days of dropbox operations have also been shortened from previous elections, county officials said.

Madden, who also visited the Montgomery County drop box at the Luddington Library in Lower Merion, was impressed.

“If a voter has two ballots, the watcher looks at the permission form accompanying it, stamps that ballot with a star purchased at Staples that allows them to deposit it,” said Madden. “Montco reportedly is more than twice the size of Delco yet has only 20 ballot drop boxes and each one has Montco paid Voter Services employees guarding the boxes. Initially, community members were watching boxes and Monto Voter Services processed, but now they are gone assured their boxes are properly monitored. Also, the Montco boxes are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. not 24 hours like Delco’s,” said Madden.

And in Bucks County, there was a kerfuffle recently after Democratic County Commissioner and Election Board Member Bob Harvie people could deposit 100 ballots, with the proper paperwork.

Megan Brock, a community activist, said the law clearly states a person must have written permission to deposit a ballot for someone who is impaired and also may not deposit ballots for anyone outside their own household.

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