Alabama’s new ‘hardened’ laptop rule for vote-counting could slow process in Jefferson County


Changes that come with the use of new vote-tabulating computers could cause some delay in compiling and reporting results in next Tuesday’s primary in Jefferson County, Probate Judge James Naftel said.

Secretary of State John Merrill, who put the rules for the new computers in place, said they are an additional safeguard against hackers manipulating voting results.

Under the new rules, counties are required to load the voting results from precincts onto a stand-alone “hardened” computer that cannot be connected to the Internet.

Merrill said his office provided one “hardened” laptop to each county at a total cost of $247,000.

Merrill said there has been no indication that Alabama’s voting systems are vulnerable but called the new machines a proactive step.

“We always believe we need to be working hard to improve the security, transparency, and accountability of our procedures,” Merrill said.

Although the requirements are statewide, Merrill said he does not expect delays to be widespread.

“You’re not going to see delays in probably 95 percent of the locations in the state,” Merrill said. “The results will still come in at the same timeframe as they normally come in.”

Madison County Probate Judge Frank Barger said he does not expect problems or significant delays. Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis said the rules will not change anything in Mobile County and that the county already compiled vote totals on a “hardened” computer that did not connect to the Internet.

Naftel said Jefferson County, the state’s largest, will have some slowdown with new procedures because of its geographic size, with 175 precincts, and because officials won’t be able to compile votes at multiple locations, as has been the practice.

Every Alabama county uses paper ballots. Voters feed their completed ballots into scanners that record the votes on a flash drive. When the polls close on election night, the flash drives are taken to county courthouses and fed into computers to compile the results.

The difference this year is that the computers receiving the flash drives will be stand-alone machines used solely for that purpose. They will record the results onto a flash drive that will then to go a second computer for transmission to the state.

Lee County Probate Judge Bill English, chair of the Electronic Voting Committee, a five-member panel created by the Legislature decades ago, explained the advantage of the new procedure. The committee certifies voting equipment for counties to use.

“The new laptops do not have the capability of being connected to the Internet,” said English, who has been probate judge since 2000 and was election manager in the county for 18 years before that. “So there’s not a way anybody could hack into and change the results on the computer where we receive the results from the precincts.”

The data from the stand-alone computer will go via thumb drive to a second computer that is connected to the Internet to send to the secretary of state, English said.

“The hacker, if he gets into our second computer and changes it, we’ve still got the original data from the precincts on computer A,” English said. “The security is that nobody can get to computer A from the Internet.”

In previous elections, Naftel said Jefferson County has compiled vote totals from the flash drives at five sites – Birmingham, Bessemer, Center Point, Gardendale, and Homewood.

This year, the flash drives will only be processed at the two locations with the new “hardened” laptops in Bessemer and Birmingham.

The Bessemer location is possible because Jefferson County bought a second “hardened” laptop after consultation with Merrill’s office, Naftel said.

“Instead of us being able to process results from all over the county and have those results come in over the county network to a central location, we have two of those computers,” Naftel said.

Naftel said the county has worked with Merrill’s office and the state’s election management software provider, Election Systems & Software, to get ready for next Tuesday, including obtaining the second computer.

One concern is that the county will not be able to provide real-time election night reporting the way it has previously, when updates from the flash drives were available immediately on the county’s computer network. Instead, Naftel hopes the county can approximate that with periodic printed reports on election night. He said the plan is to post the periodic reports on the county’s website.

“We’re going to do the best we can on election night to make it as fast and efficient but as accurate as possible,” Naftel said. “And we will learn from this one and see what we could have done better and we’ll do it better in June and then we’ll do it a lot better in November. We would just ask that people put some trust in the process that even though it may be new that we’re working as hard and fast as we can to get results out to everyone in a timely manner.”

Naftel said printouts of the vote totals from each scanner will be posted on the doors of the precincts and in the jury room at the Jefferson County Courthouse. There are a total of about 400 scanners in the county, with at least two in every precinct.

“There is an expectation that we will be able to print out interim results over the course of the night, maybe once an hour or something like that,” Naftel said. “But at the very least the media will be able to see and inspect those end-of-night poll closing reports from each voting machine.”

Merrill said most counties compile totals at just one location so the new procedures won’t make as much difference.

Madison County Probate Judge Barger said the county courthouse has been the only site used for compiling the vote totals from the precincts and that will not change. Barger said the use of the new stand-alone computer might cause a slight lag in posting results on the county’s website but expects that to be minimal.

Lee County Probate English also does not expect major delays.

“I don’t see much slowdown,” English said. “It’s an additional step for the workers at the courthouse to take the data off one computer in a thumb drive and put it in another computer and then do the standard upload that we’ve been doing.”

Naftel said Alabama’s election system has built in safeguards, including the paper ballots that can verify the electronic count. He said he understands the purpose of the “hardened” computers.

“But we’ve never seen anything in Jefferson County that suggests there has been any hacking of the results or manipulation of the data or anything like that,” Naftel said.

The judge said he hopes any delays on election night are kept to a minimum.

“People get nervous on election night if they’re just not hearing anything,” Naftel said. “And we don’t want there to be an information vacuum.”

“I would hope that by midnight we’ll have a sense of where we are or we’ll be pretty darn close to knowing what the results are,” Naftel said. “This is a primary. This isn’t the general. So, turnout is not going to be at the same level it is in a general election or a presidential election in November. So that will help us a little bit.”

Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, sponsored a bill this year to require that electronic vote-counting systems are incapable of connecting to the Internet or cell phone networks, and to require that they not have modem technology. It did not pass.

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