Investigation casts cloud over Virginia voting machines

Investigation casts cloud over Virginia voting machines

Nearly a year after Fairfax County, Va., scrapped its touch-screen voting machines, state officials are recommending decertification of the WinVote system used in 20% of the state’s precincts.

The investigation has raised concerns about the credibility and integrity of upcoming elections throughout the swing state.

With fewer than 60 days to the June primaries, the Virginia Department of Elections is taking public comment on the machines used in 29 localities.

Fairfax County General Registrar Cameron Quinn pulled the plug on the 10-year-old units last summer.

“We knew we couldn’t get through the (2016) presidential election without a change,” said Quinn, chief election officer in the state’s largest county. Neighboring Loudoun County also junked WinVote.

Unlike mechanical voting machines of bygone days, computer-based systems like WinVote can be fussy and fragile. The computers that run WinVote are prone to “calibration” issues, Quinn said.

‘Serious security concerns’

The state Department of Elections aired the problem in a report that alleged “serious security concerns with WinVote voting equipment, particularly with the wireless capability of the system.”

The report said the touch-screen units “are aging and experiencing end-of-life symptoms. For example, in the 2014 primary election, one machine irretrievably lost one vote and multiple voters experienced difficulties when attempting to cast a vote.”

“Today, Virginia is one of the few states in which [touch-screen] voting equipment systems that do not produce a paper trail remain [state] certified,” the report stated.

“Protecting the integrity of Virginia’s electoral system is of the utmost concern to the Department and the State Board of Elections,” said state Election Commissioner Edgardo Cortés.

Yet in the eight months since Fairfax County swapped out WinVote for new optical scanners, the state made no replacement proposals to the General Assembly.

“We admit the timing is not great,” Cortes told Watchdog.org. “There’s never a good time to talk about decertifying equipment. We just don’t want a problem on Election Day.”

Cortes said his department is reviewing five vendors offering to provide new equipment.Election Systems & Software signed a deal with Virginia Beach last month to replace touch-screen machines there. The city reported several vote-counting problems last year; the machines were not WinVote devices.

Critics of WinVote machines — used in Arlington, Henrico, Richmond and 26 other localities — warn that close races could become political footballs, and the entire voting process called into question.

Richmond registrar blasts review process

Kirk Showalter, Richmond’s general registrar, blasted the timing and conclusions of the state’s review.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in 40 years,” Showalter told Watchdog. “It’s customary for all stakeholders to review and comment on a report before it’s released.” She said investigators didn’t contact her office.

If officials had asked, Showalter would have told them that her department experienced just one mechanical malfunction with WinVote in 10 years of use.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has not certified the WinVote machines, but EAC spokesman Bryan Whitener said federal certification is not required.

Showalter said complaints of machine glitches are “old news” and have been “fully addressed” by her staff. “It all comes down to proper training and maintenance,” she said.

The biggest issue, Showalter asserts, is the timing of the state’s investigation.

“The report stokes doubts about the (existing) equipment. If we’re ordered to get new equipment, there won’t be enough time for training and all the peripherals that are needed,” she said.

Public hearing set for Tuesday

Whatever the State Board of Elections decides, Showalter said the investigation has cast a cloud over upcoming elections. Close results will be questioned, whether voting machines are new or old.

Cortes acknowledged that his department’s report was done on a “quick turnaround.” In the wake of a request by Gov. Terry McAuliffe last fall, Virginia State Police are conducting parallel investigations.

“We are engaging all localities now,” Cortes said.

Read more by Kenric Ward at Watchdog.com.

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Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent and writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Formerly a reporter and editor at two Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, Kenric has won dozens of state and national news awards for investigative articles. His most recent book is “Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas.”


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