By Ray Murphy
Elections are about choosing among a variety of candidates with different views on important issues. But there is one item that unites Republicans and Democrats alike: making sure voting is fair, accurate, accessible and secure.
Those concerns took center stage in Harrisburg last week.
Pennsylvania’s elections could be the easiest target for foreign influence in 2020 unless the commonwealth moves to voter-verifiable paper ballots that allows for audits, according to Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, who has 38 years of experience in national security and cybersecurity, including operational work with the FBI, NSA and CIA.
Lt. Col. Shaffer, also a FOX News contributor, joined lawmakers at a morning news conference on Tuesday in advance of a lengthy Senate State Government Committee hearing that examined issues related to voting security and funding support for counties that are working to replace vulnerable machines that in some cases are nearly 20 years old.
He isn’t the first national figure to make the case for states like Pennsylvania to switch. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen previously urged election officials nationwide to make certain that by the 2020 presidential election, every American votes on a voter-verifiable system and auditable ballot.
Right now, 83 percent of Pennsylvanians are voting on vulnerable machines. But according to the Department of State, 21 counties, or nearly one-third of Pennsylvania counties, already have taken official action toward acquiring new voting systems, either through a vote to purchase or lease a system, or a vote to approve funding.
And that’s the biggest challenge — funding.
Keystone Votes has been working with the administration and members of the General Assembly to secure funding that would help counties modernize their system by making investments in both hardware and software. That means new voting systems, electronic poll books, and updates to database technology to enhance security.
But simply buying new machines isn’t enough to fully modernize Pennsylvania elections.
The reality is that Pennsylvania’s “modern” election system is governed by an election code that hasn’t been updated in more than 60 years, and it’s dominated by aging machines that are prone to malfunction or failure or vulnerable to interference.
Ever since the federal government in September 2017 told election officials in at least 21 states, including Pennsylvania, that hackers targeted their systems before the 2016 presidential election and would try again in 2020, the conversation has evolved from basic security issues to a much larger discussion about our entire election infrastructure.
And that’s a good thing.
For the first time in years, efforts are under way to update the state’s outdated election system, including changing the way people vote.
Legislative leaders should be commended for their work.
Even as Pennsylvania has undertaken a comprehensive review of voting machine security to update systems, the state has also begun to examine more closely the need to modernize the commonwealth’s election code and several provisions aimed at potentially enhancing participation.
In January, a bipartisan group of state Senators, led by Republican state Sen. Mike Folmer, introduced a package of bills that will initiate the process of making long-needed reforms to update Pennsylvania’s election system.
Our commonwealth is now seeing more activity on legitimate election reform issues than it has in years. Many of the reforms, such as making the use of absentee ballots less restrictive to allow voters to vote early and by mail, mirror proposals Keystone Votes has been working to advance for years.
Other ideas may be offered as well.
For example, proven election reforms — implementation of electronic poll books, voting by mail using a no-excuse absentee ballot, pre-registration for youth, and more — have been tried and tested in other states, garnering broad support from Republicans and Democrats alike. So far, they haven’t been implemented here. That may change if the momentum continues.
Of course, when it comes to election reform, the devil is always in the details. Additional reviews will be needed once the full packages are introduced and more hearings are scheduled, as promised. So far, legislative leaders and bill sponsors have been open to suggestions and willing to work to ensure voters’ voices are heard. That needs to continue.
As important as it is to make sure every vote is counted, it is equally important to ensure that voters have a voice as all of these reforms are debated.
Ray Murphy is state coordinator for Keystone Votes, a nonpartisan coalition comprising 40 organizations working to update Pennsylvania’s election system.