The “Opti-scan” machines were lined up like full-sized Star Wars R2-D2's awaiting trial voter input testing.They use an optical scanner to read marked paper ballots and also tally the results. Research on opti-scan technology says they can be hacked five ways to Sunday . . .
There is a county election coming up on Tuesday, April 4, but the preparation starts weeks before that date. Now, the voting machines are taking center stage.
The “Opti-scan” machines were lined up like full-sized Star Wars R2-D2’s awaiting trial voter input testing.They use an optical scanner to read marked paper ballots and also tally the results. The top part of the machine is the “brain” with the lower part serving as a stand with storage capability.
Phelps County Clerk Pam Grow says these particular voting machines were acquired in 2005. She exlained the hardware tops of the machines are stored in between elections in Springfield at Elkins-Swyers Printing Company (the ballot printing company) to preserve the warranty contract. “The cabinets are stored here,” she added.
This county-wide election is taking place after a national election that brought election integrity into question. Grow has mentioned many times that she favors paper ballots marked with a #2 Ticonderoga. What about our Opti-scan system?
According to Wikipedia, “optical scan voting systems are a form of document ballot voting system, meaning that there is a tangible record of the voter's intent (a paper ballot). Like traditional paper ballots these are subject to electoral fraud and ballot stuffing.”
According to the Election Defense Alliance (EDA),a program of Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism, based in Columbus, OH,the state of Florida’s Diebold optical scan systems were shown to be hacked in different ways, such as a memory card hack. The group says, “One form of wholesale fraud possible with optical scan voting systems is during the recording of votes.”
The EDA website cites a study of Douglas W. Jones of the University of Iowa.He states that if a potential attacker were to gain access to the voting system configuration files, they would be able to "credit one candidate with votes intended for another." He found these files are exposed in the computer system used to prepare the election, making them vulnerable to anyone setting up the election. The files are then transferred to the voting system using removable media, and "anyone with access to these media could potentially attack the system."
That’s why checking each machine—particularly machines stored off site, need to be checked for accuracy prior to an election. The process is kind of complicated.
County Clerk Grow says the basic premise it to ensure each machine can distinguish between under-voting and over-voting.”We have to show our machines can discriminate [between the differences].”
Elkins-Swyers Printing Company supplies Grow with a deck of ballots that are pre-marked showing all the different scenarios.
“We start making sure the machinery reads the deck of each ballot type so that we know the machine can distinguish between two votes for Candidate A and one vote for Candidate B,” she explains.
“Or, three votes for Candidate A and two votes for Candidate B and one write-in vote, who would be a distinctly different candidate.”
Depending on where the voter lives, a resident could receive a different ballot “type” than a neighbor on the other side of town or across the county.
“Not everybody lives in the same school or fire district,” she says.
“A ballot type is a unique combination of candidates, races or issues.
So, during the spring election, we have 25 distinct, unique ballot types —that’s 25 different assortments that people in the county can vote on.” She says there are multiple ballot types for some of our polling places.
“Some of our machines are expected to read multiple ballot types. Some of the machines only have to read one ballot type, for example, Wards 1,2,3,4,5,6 only have to read one ballot type.”
If an Opti-scan system can be hacked, why does Phelps County still use them? According to Wikipedia, they have a big benefit.
“Optical scan voting systems can allow for manual recounting of ballots and random auditing of the election equipment that reports the results to election officials.
This “auditing” or “testing” is part of the procedure Grow and her team were involved with this week. Wikipedia adds “statistically relevant auditing can serve as a tool to detect or deter malfunction or fraud.”
Under oath of office, Phelps County residents Brenda Skaggs and Mike Gosnell were checking the ballots to make sure they match what the Opti-scan machine prints. Using the marked ballots received from Elkins-Swyers, Grow will feed each trial ballot into the machine that takes a particular ballot type. Pam Grow then takes a printout from the voting machine that should read exactly what the voting tally is from the ballot that was fed into the machine.
“This is a test to make sure the machines are writing correctly,” says Brenda. After the election, the machines will be checked again and everything has to match.
“We just check to make sure the machines are doing what they’re supposed to do,” said Gosnell.
“We count them—the machines count them—and they need to match.”