By David B. Bjerke and the F.C. Electoral Board
Falls Church City voters will find something new when they go to the polls on November 7 — new voting equipment. It’s part of a Virginia-wide effort to improve election security throughout the Commonwealth, and the City’s Electoral Board and I are enthusiastic about introducing it to you. To make it work, though, we need your cooperation. Here’s the background:
For several years election officials nationwide have had concerns about the security of voting equipment known as Direct Recording Electronic, or DRE, machines. A few years ago the General Assembly made it illegal to purchase any DRE voting systems after July 1, 2020.
Then, this summer, an annual computer hacking conference called DefCon made national headlines when participants successfully hacked voting equipment. One system, called WinVote, was hacked in 15 minutes. Other systems were hacked in under two hours.
WinVote had previously been used in Fairfax and Arlington Counties as well as many other localities in the Commonwealth, though not in the City of Falls Church. It had been decertified by the Virginia State Board of Elections (SBE) two years ago.
Falls Church has used the Hart Intercivic Voting System (HVS), and its eSlate component, a DRE, since 2005. The eSlate neither uses a touch screen nor does it have wireless features, the most common issues that have caused other DRE systems like WinVote to be decertified. It’s important to note that, although the system Falls Church has been using for over a decade has been decertified, we consider every election we have conducted with it to have been accurate and have no reason to think the results of any election were compromised at any time.
However, ours was one of the now-banned DRE systems, so the Falls Church City Electoral Board and I began working with the City Council to replace it. Under our timeline, we were planning to receive new equipment next January, allowing us to use the June 2018 primary elections to introduce the new system to voters.
But the DREs that had been hacked at DefCon included several that were widely used in Virginia. The Commonwealth decided to review immediately the security of those DRE systems that were not part of the DefCon exercise, including our eSlate system.
The Electoral Board and I saw the writing on the wall, and set out to ensure we would be prepared for the start of absentee voting on September 22, no matter what decision was reached. Working with the City Manager’s office and the City Finance Office, we reviewed Virginia Procurement law and, given our limited timeframe, were preparing to ask the City Council for approval to procure a new system, should our equipment be decertified before the election.
And it was. In emergency session the State Board of Elections [SBE], after reviewing the equipment testing report, voted to decertify all DRE equipment in the Commonwealth, including our system. They announced that decision last Friday – two weeks before the start of absentee voting.
With a suddenly compressed and compelling deadline, we appeared before the City Council on Monday to inform its members of our current status. The Council voted unanimously to procure a new voting system.
The Electoral Board and my office chose the Hart Intercivic VERITY election system, a paper-based digital scanning system certified at the federal and state levels – in fact, only paper-based digital scanning systems are now certified for use in Virginia. VERITY comes with a touch writer that complies with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] and is similar to the ADA features on our previous system. Each scanner sits on a ballot box that securely holds the paper ballots throughout the election and gives election officers a tangible ballot that can be used for audits and recounts.
We are now acceptance-testing VERITY; early indications are that it is very voter-friendly. We will work with city officials and civic groups to introduce voters to the new system, and we encourage you to take advantage of the familiarization opportunities that will soon be announced.
Meanwhile, you can go to www.vote.elections.virginia.gov/VoterInformation to check your voter registration status and update it if necessary. You can also apply for a mail-in absentee ballot – remember, if you expect to leave the City of Falls Church for any reason on Election Day, you are eligible to vote early in-person or by-mail absentee.
If you are not already registered, the deadline to register for the November 7 General Election is Monday, October 16. You may either register in our office by 5pm on that date, mail the paper registration form postmarked by October 16, or go to the above website to update your voter registration. You must have a DMV-issued ID card such as a driver’s license to verify your identity and signature.
David Bjerke is the director of the Falls Church Elections and General Registrar.