Elections 101: What to know about electronic pollbooks, which Pa. counties use them, and more

E-pollbooks speed up key processes for poll workers. But like most election technology, they are potentially vulnerable to hacking if there aren’t safeguards in place.

Voter entering a polling place

The sun sets over Pennsylvania as voters take to the polls in Harrisburg on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. (Amanda Berg for Spotlight PA)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

As Pennsylvania prepares for the 2024 presidential election, voters may start hearing about a new piece of technology rolling out in more and more counties: electronic pollbooks.

E-pollbooks, as they are commonly called, replace the paper booklets that contain voter registration information that people generally see when they sign in at their polling place on election day.

This updated tech doesn’t change the voter experience much. Instead of signing their names in the booklets, voters in counties that use e-pollbooks do the same thing on electronic tablets.

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But behind the scenes, the differences are significant.

E-pollbooks make election day operations much easier for poll workers and speed up key processes. But like most election technology, they are potentially vulnerable to hacking if officials do not have safeguards in place.

When Lancaster County piloted e-pollbooks last year, poll workers praised them, but at least one county commissioner said he was wary of fully implementing them, in part, because of cybersecurity concerns.

Read on for a rundown on why election officials like e-pollbooks, why they’re becoming more common, and what security measures are taken to keep them from being hacked.

How do e-pollbooks change the process?

The purpose of any pollbook is to record which voters are eligible to cast ballots at a given polling place. That allows poll workers to double-check that the people who show up to vote are indeed eligible.

They are also used after the election for a process known as pollbook reconciliation, in which poll workers scan every voter’s name into the commonwealth’s Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors — or SURE — system, to verify that nobody voted more than once.

In counties that use paper pollbooks, election workers have to print out reams of voter sign-in sheets weeks ahead of time and add supplements if people register close to the deadline.

When doing pollbook reconciliation using paper, workers must scan a unique barcode next to every voter’s name to enter it into SURE. Jeff Greenburg, a former Mercer County election director who now works for the good-government group Committee of Seventy, called this “an extremely labor-intensive process that takes days even in a small county.”

E-pollbooks make everything a lot more seamless, he said.

It’s quicker to find voters’ names for sign-in in an electronic format, Greenburg told Spotlight PA in an email, which “helps move voters through the process quicker and keeps the size of lines down.” Plus, if someone isn’t on the rolls, poll workers can look up voters from the whole county and figure out if the person belongs in another precinct.

E-pollbooks also make it less likely that a poll worker will overlook a name and wrongly have a voter cast a provisional ballot. (Provisional ballots are used if a voter’s eligibility is in question, and are subject to additional checks.)

Plus, pollbook reconciliation is much quicker when the process is electronic. Instead of spending days scanning, Greenberg said, poll workers can use e-pollbooks to upload voter records to the SURE system “essentially at the push of a button.”

Which Pennsylvania counties use e-pollbooks? Which don’t?

Pennsylvania has no statewide e-pollbook policy. While a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State told Spotlight PA that the new pollbooks provide “several benefits,” the agency leaves the decision of whether to adopt them entirely up to counties.

Counties have increasingly done so in recent years. As of the November 2023 municipal election, 25 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties were using electronic pollbooks — up from 19 in that year’s May primary.

These counties range from some of Pennsylvania’s sparsest and most rural, like Warren and Susquehanna, to its largest and most urban county, Philadelphia.

Philly, which has the most logistically complicated elections in the commonwealth, first used e-pollbooks in the 2023 primary election. The city previously tried to implement them in 2019 but paused the effort due to technical issues.

Ahead of last year’s general election, a spokesperson for city commissioners, who run elections, told Spotlight PA that the new technology allowed pollbook reconciliation to be conducted “much faster than with the paper pollbooks.

Other counties have adopted the new tech more slowly. One of the big reasons? It’s expensive. Philly’s contract, for instance, cost $3.1 million initially and another $589,000 annually, according to The Inquirer.

Some counties have said they can cover costs with election funding from the state. Lebanon, for instance, piloted e-pollbooks last year and said if it opts to move forward with buying a system, it would fund it using about half of a $450,000 election integrity grant it accepted from the state this fiscal year.

The same 2022 law that initiated those election integrity grants also barred counties from using private election funding. During the pandemic, many counties used private sources to finance big equipment upgrades.

Allegheny County, the biggest county that doesn’t use e-pollbooks, once explored the possibility of upgrading its system, but county officials said estimates for a contract were in the millions of dollars at the time.

“Both cost and the timeline to implement were considered when looking at vendor products,” said county executive spokesperson Abigail Gardner. “The group reviewing the proposals did not find a solution that they collectively felt comfortable implementing.”

Are e-pollbooks secure?

Counties that want to adopt e-pollbooks have to pick from a list of models the state has tested and approved. Pennsylvania cleared its first e-pollbook for use in 2010, and 20 models are currently on its list.

Three vendors — ES&S, Knowink, and Tenex — are currently in use in the commonwealth, with one county, Lebanon, using a combination of ES&S and Knowink in its pilot program last year. Some counties, like Philadelphia, used a fully electronic pollbook system in the last election, while a handful used a hybrid paper and electronic system.

According to a Pennsylvania Department of State spokesperson, any e-pollbook vendor that wants to be considered for use in the commonwealth needs to provide “rigorous security compliance assurance,” which includes “showing their equipment comports with Commonwealth IT policies,” and allowing the agency to inspect the equipment during a demonstration of its use.

E-pollbook security has a lot to do with the devices’ network settings. According to the state’s reports on approved systems, e-pollbooks can generally be set up two ways: using a “wide area” network, in which the systems are connected to a host server, or using a “local area,” or “peer-to-peer” network, in which e-pollbooks in a given polling place can connect only to each other.

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The Pennsylvania Department of State says the commonwealth requires that all e-pollbooks use the latter setup during voting hours, and connect only to each other. Specifically, they must never connect to a publicly accessible wireless network, and the closed network they use must be encrypted and have security settings that prevent outside devices from detecting the network.

Before and after voting hours, e-pollbooks must have voter data transferred to and from them. Counties work with the commonwealth’s state department and with their vendors to load in the data ahead of elections using a secure, encrypted file transfer protocol that has to be tracked and audited.

After the election, there are even more security steps, according to the state agency.

County administrators upload data from each pollbook to a “secure location” that the vendor can access. The vendor then sends it to the Pennsylvania Department of State using a secure file transfer, and the agency verifies the data and uploads it to SURE. (The department said only it is authorized to update voter records.) Finally, the county again verifies the uploaded results against its own records.

The security of e-pollbooks has recently gotten some national attention from outlets like the Associated Press because not all states have a uniform process for securing their files. In the past decade, hackers from Iran and Russia have accessed voter systems to look for weaknesses and find voters’ contact information.

The Pennsylvania state department said it considers the federal Election Assistance Commission to be a “key partner” in informing its election administration. The commission is working on creating uniform testing criteria for e-pollbooks as their use expands. Those criteria aren’t expected to be ready for this year’s presidential election, however.

Greenburg noted that with any new tech, there is a learning curve, and problems arise. In Berks County in 2022, for instance, e-pollbook issues prompted a judge to extend voting for an hour.

“The biggest challenge in implementing them, as you might expect, is ensuring proper training is provided to poll workers and to ensure there is adequate backup in the event of a breakdown or failure at the precinct,” Greenburg said.

In some ways, he added, the stakes are particularly high for e-pollbooks.

“If the voting machines break down, voters can still cast ballots,” he said. “If the e-pollbook fails and there is no backup, voting will essentially stop.”

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