STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, America, just to let you know, you have five months - five months - until presidential primary voting begins. That means election officials are focused now on keeping elections safe from cyberattacks. In Pennsylvania, every county is getting new paper ballot machines. NPR's Pam Fessler paid a visit.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: On an oppressively hot weekday night, 200 residents of Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, showed up at a local college to weigh in on how best to protect democracy.
DOLORES MUCCI: Nancy, you go in and vote. Go in and vote.
FESSLER: They were there to test the different voting machines the county's considering buying to replace its old equipment. It was a little like speed dating as Dolores Mucci and her friends circulated among the vendors, writing down their likes and dislikes after casting some make-believe votes.
MUCCI: Yeah. Mary Bailey from "It's A Wonderful Life" and Thomas Edison.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You like Thomas Edison.
MUCCI: And I'm putting Carl Sagan. Oh, vote for three.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What if they vote for too many? What happens?
FESSLER: The sales representative from Dominion Voting says the touch-screen machine won't allow over voting. It's one of its features. It can also change the language of the ballot with a touch of a button.
UNIDENTIFIED SALES REPRESENTATIVE #1: Easy peasy's the name of the game.
FESSLER: He shows how the machine prints the ballot once the voter is done. It's then fed into a scanner to be counted. Voters can also do it the old-fashioned way, using a pen to fill in ovals on a preprinted ballot. Nearby, another vendor, Election Systems & Software, demonstrates a third option - a big touch screen, which prints the voter's choices on a blank piece of paper, then displays it in a window.
UNIDENTIFIED SALES REPRESENTATIVE #2: If it's how you want to vote, you press another button, it tabulates it and drops it into a ballot box. So that one is one-stop shopping instead of a two-fold system.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That eliminates a step then.
UNIDENTIFIED SALES REPRESENTATIVE #2: Exactly.
FESSLER: Eliminating steps is pretty popular here, although many security experts think anything short of a hand-marked ballot presents a risk. Still, Marian Schneider, a former Pennsylvania election official, thinks whatever counties decide, the state's in much better shape than it was in 2016 when more than 80% of its voters cast ballots on paperless machines.
MARIAN SCHNEIDER: Whatever the computer said, the computer said. You were done.
FESSLER: Now there will be a physical record that can be reviewed for accuracy. Schneider runs Verified Voting, a group that's long promoted paper ballots, which almost every U.S. voter will use next year. But she says that's not enough.
SCHNEIDER: You have to check the paper afterwards. You have to randomly sample those ballots and make sure that the results that the software reported matches what's on the paper ballots.
FESSLER: Something called risk-limiting audits. Pennsylvania is among a dozen states now testing the idea. It's all part of a multipronged national effort to secure next year's elections. Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania's acting secretary, says her state, like others, is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and has participated in tabletop exercises to practice responding to cyberattacks. They're also upgrading their voter registration database, another potential target. But Boockvar has a warning.
KATHY BOOCKVAR: You know, it's a race without a finish line, right? So the key is that we have to be building and reinforcing our walls faster than those that are trying to tear them down.
FESSLER: And like other election officials, she says that requires more resources, not only to build a wall against attacks...
BOOCKVAR: But the wall of confidence for each voter to know that their vote is secure and their vote is being counted accurately.
FESSLER: Last year, Congress approved $380 million to help do that. Pennsylvania only got $14 million, a drop in the bucket. Liz Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice says her group estimates the states could easily use another $2 billion over five years, especially to secure local election offices, which tend to be more vulnerable.
LIZ HOWARD: With over 8,000 election jurisdictions across the country, there's some not insubstantial portion of them that do not have IT support at the local level.
FESSLER: Still, at the Bucks County demo, security was clearly a secondary concern. Resident Milo Morris says he wants machines that are easy to use.
MILO MORRIS: I don't want to see voters get bogged down once they get into the voting booth, you know, because all that does is discourage the practice altogether. And we need everybody to come out and vote. We want people to come out and vote.
FESSLER: Something local officials also have to consider when picking the new machines. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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