The Virginia Board of Elections took the necessary step last week of voting to decertify a certain type of voting machine used in 30 localities, including in York County. A recent report by the Department of Elections found serious security flaws in those devices, prompting the board's action.
While we applaud that decision, it does little to alleviate our continued concern about the integrity of elections in the commonwealth. Rather, there are too many outstanding questions, too many inequalities among jurisdictions, and too many glaring needs that remain unaddressed.
Our founders gambled on the radical notion that government authority should depend on the consent of the governed. Central to that principle is the conduct of free, fair and impartial elections to determine who holds office in our representative democracy.
Citizens cannot have confidence in the integrity of those elections until they can trust that the ballots they cast will be accurately recorded and properly tabulated. That is not the case across the commonwealth, and it risks casting a long shadow of doubt over all we do in our state and local governments.
Throughout Election Day last year, would-be voters for incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell complained that machines in Virginia Beach would not allow them to record their selections. Pushing the button next to Rep. Rigell's name would highlight the box for his challenger, Suzanne Patrick. It prompted a state review of the problem.
The ensuing investigation found the problem in Virginia Beach was limited, but it made some troubling discoveries regarding a different kind of device, the AVS WINVote touch-screen machines, which are used by 30 localities in more than 560 districts statewide.
For instance, York County relies on optical scan machines as its primary voting system, but uses the WINVote touch screens as backup for voters whose disabilities mean they need an alternative way to cast a ballot. Other localities employ the devices as their primary means of voting.
A report by the Virginia Information Technologies Agency found the machines "use insecure security protocols, weak passwords and unpatched software." In Henrico County, the devices hadn't been updated in a decade. In Spotsylvania County, officials said the machines' wireless capability was disrupted, a claim being investigated by the Virginia State Police.
Jeremy Epstein, a security consultant on loan to the National Science Foundation, calls the AVS WINVote machines the worst in the United States. Writing at Slate.com, he contends, "If an election was held using the AVS WINVote, and it wasn't hacked, it was only because no one tried."
Last week, the State Board of Elections followed the VITA report's recommendations and voted to decertify the machines. It was a needed step, though it comes only weeks before Virginia's primary election and leaves some communities scrambling to locate reliable and acceptable voting devices.
Taking those machines out of the mix is an important step, but leaves a much larger and more troubling problem yet unaddressed.
Prior to tossing the WINVote machines, there were 27 different types of voting systems in use across the commonwealth. That includes touch screens, like those which malfunctioned in November, and optical scan machines, like those in York. Some create a paper record of balloting, while others do not.
Importantly, some machines are expensive to purchase and maintain while others are relatively inexpensive. It is no surprise, then, that the voting experience is vastly different from one end of the commonwealth to the other.
Nor are concerns about voting confined to balloting systems.
In Newport News, the official canvass of preliminary results in last May's school board election uncovered a clerical error that reversed the result in the at-large race. It's disconcerting when a canvass — the double- and triple-checking by election officials — catches mistakes like that, and reminds us how important it is to be sure we have the best equipment and well-trained poll officials in order to maintain confidence in the final result.
After all, a vote in one of the state's high-wealth counties should carry the same weight as one in our urban centers or rural corners. Each ballot cast in Virginia should have the same likelihood of being counted correctly.
The General Assembly had an opportunity this year to move the commonwealth in that direction. Instead, lawmakers rejected a proposal by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to borrow $28 million to replace aging touch-screen machines. His plan would have seen the state buy digital scan machines for every precinct and resurrect paper ballots.
The governor should be not discouraged by that setback, and his push for election reform deserves widespread, bipartisan support. Improving our voting system is critical to our commonwealth since nothing more directly affects the health of our democracy than election results we can trust.