MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont election officials reported a mostly smooth election on Tuesday, but acknowledged at least a dozen complaints from city and town clerks regarding vote counting machines.
“The latest I heard I think we had 12 (complaints),” Will Senning, Vermont’s director of elections, told Vermont Watchdog Tuesday afternoon.
AccuVote-OS machines have been the digital ballot counters of choice for more than a decade in New England states. About 135 towns in Vermont use the machines to tally election results from paper ballots.
While the standalone units are generally considered safe because they don’t connect to the Internet, computer security experts say they are vulnerable to hackers through the machines’ detachable memory cards. Those cards are managed by a single private company, LHS Associates, of Salem, N.H.
Senning refused to say what glitches were reported or reveal which towns were getting help. However, he said a half dozen LHS service experts were positioned around the state as a precaution, and could reach any polling place within about an hour.
“The guy who’s in my office is able to look at their home base and tell me all of the calls that have come in and how they’ve been resolved.” Senning said.
According to statistics from the Secretary of State’s office, Vermont was on track for a record-breaking voter turnout, especially with absentee ballots. At 2:30 p.m., the official count of returned absentee votes stood at 92,856, just shy of the record 94,664 absentee ballots cast in 2008.
South Burlington, a city with just under 14,000 registered voters, set a new absentee voting record before noon. Of 3,841 absentee ballots requested this year, all but about 150 were filled out and returned, according to Clerk-Treasurer Donna Kinville.
“This is an all time high for us for absentees,” Kinville told Vermont Watchdog.
The city’s prior record of 3,600 absentee votes was set in 2008, but absentees dipped to about 2,700 for the 2012 election.
While Kinville said voters had asked about the security of the AccuVote machines, she affirmed that Vermont’s chain of custody helps prevent hackers from getting access to machines.
“I have no concerns whatsoever with security or how these things are testing,” she said. “With Vermont, we do have the ballots. So we can always go back to (check the) ballots if we have to.”
But when asked if she would be performing a hand-count spot-check of paper ballots to ensure that machine numbers match the votes on paper, Kinville said she had no authority to do a check.
“Am I looking at every ballot? No. I’d be violating their voter privacy. We wouldn’t even look at a race, so I couldn’t even begin to make that judgment.”
The 2016 election season has been plagued by election security concerns. At the direction of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Justice Department and other agencies, state and federal officials were on high alert Monday night in anticipation of election fraud, according to NBC News. Last week, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos revealed that Homeland Security performed two inspections of Vermont’s voter system over the past month.
As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, numerous voting machine troubles were being reported in key states.
In heavily Democratic Durham County, N.C., eight precincts were given extended voting hours after computer troubles forced poll workers to abandon digital systems and check for registered voters using printouts.
In Pennsylvania, election officials confirmed that two of eight automated voting machines in Butler County were switching votes from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton. The same problem occurred in five machines in Lebanon County and also in Perry County.
Problems arose around memory cards in Washington County, Utah, while computer glitches also arose in Wilson County, Tenn.
Back in Vermont, where statewide turnout could challenge the record 326,822 voters who voted in 2008, some precinct captains maintained that elections are clean and free from tampering.
Wendy Coe, ward clerk for Burlington’s Ward 2, has been working elections for 20 years. She said she’s unconcerned about election fraud.
“A lot of people who have moved here from out of state find it interesting that we trust people,” Coe said.
Coe expressed doubt that the machines could be hacked because they don’t have wireless capability and are “just a big counting machine.”
“Yeah, I listen to people saying (things) about programming it, but these things are tested, and they print out a zero strip that the ward clerk and three inspectors look at before the polls open in the morning.”
In the Hursti Hack, malicious code added to AccuVote-OS memory cards can switch votes from one candidate to another. The malware escapes detection by “logic and accuracy tests” conducted 10 days prior to the election and also defies “zero-total tape” runs conducted on Election Day morning.
Coe said she and other election officials at voting wards don’t perform hand-counts of paper ballots, with the exception of write-ins. Hand-count audits are only performed in rare instances when someone contests an election result.
“Anyone can require that a hand-count is done, if somebody disagrees with how things came out. I’ve only ever seen this when (the race) is very close.”
Coe nevertheless said she is confident that voting machines are safe from hackers.
“I know that Vermont is a more trusting state than other states,” she said.