[San Mateo County] County unveils new election machines

Some prefer open-source models

Blog note: this article references a 2016 San Francisco County grand jury report.

On Oct. 17, San Mateo County officials debuted a new voting machine, the county’s first voting system update since 2006. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the upgrade.

As with so much in and around Silicon Valley, the issue is software.

“I am disappointed that the Secretary of State has certified a system that has no open-source software,” said South San Francisco resident Danny Schwartzman, who attended a public demonstration of the new machines at Assemblymember Kevin Mullin’s district office in San Mateo. 

In February, to strengthen election security, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla ordered counties to implement voting systems that meet the state’s newest standards in time for next year’s elections or face legal action. The new voting machines came in response to the state order, but critics say security is still an issue because the systems use hidden source code.

San Mateo County leased its new voting machines, called Democracy Suite, from Dominion Voting Systems. DVS has sold voting systems to 42 of the 58 counties in California. 

The new machine is “one of the safest and securest voting systems in the United States,” said Jim Irizarry, assistant chief elections officer for San Mateo County.

The voting machines are large Android tablets connected to printers. After a voter fills out and approves a digital ballot, the ballot is printed. The ballot, now in paper form with a barcode, is then cast in a sealed envelope and sent off to be scanned.

The machine is “not a bad one,” said Coastsider Brent Turner, secretary of the California Association of Voting Officials, a nonprofit whose mission is to develop new voting systems that utilize open-source software. 

But Turner said he objects to the system “because it is not open-source — the public has no oversight regarding the software code.” 

Some reports suggest closed-source voting system vendors like DVS use vulnerable software, have outdated equipment, and provide faulty voting machines. 

“So, we don’t know if the final tabulation is correct or not,” said Turner. “There’s no way to subpoena that code.”

Irizarry said the new DVS machines address this problem. 

“This system leaves a paper-audit trail and a digital one,” said Irizarry. “We will know every step of the way who touched that ballot, what scanner scanned it, what vote center processed it, and how it was adjudicated.” 

However, multiple reports suggest these new machines still have vulnerabilities: They auto-fill the parts of any ballot that are left blank, and they do not allow voters to verify that the information in the printed barcode matches their voting choices.   

Support for open-source voting has gained traction over the years. In a letter sent to the country’s three largest voting system vendors, including DVS, four U.S. senators noted the potential for open-source voting systems to overcome technical vulnerabilities in existing voting machines. 

Government agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are currently funding research and development of an open-source voting system. Microsoft, in an effort to make elections more secure and transparent, recently released ElectionGuard, an open-source voting platform for handling voting data.  

The security of open-source voting systems, however, depends on its users. 

According to a 2018 report by a San Francisco civil grand jury, since the source code in an open-source project is available for anybody to inspect, it becomes easier to find vulnerabilities and potentially exploit them. However, the larger the number of people inspecting and maintaining the source code, the more secure the system will be. A 2016 report by the University of Pennsylvania concluded the same. 

Both reports suggest open-source voting systems could potentially lead to cost savings due to the lack of expensive licensing fees — which typically come with every update of a vendor’s voting system — and use of nonspecialized hardware.   

San Mateo County acquired the new voting machines over a nine-year lease, consisting of three three-year options. According to Mark Church, chief elections officer for San Mateo County, this will give the county the “flexibility to decide if we like it.”

“And, also, with the open-source market,” said Church. “If they produce a viable alternative that ultimately is certified by the secretary of state, we will consider that as well.”

November 6, 2019

Half Moon Bay Review

By Daniel Roman