ALEXANDER CITY – The midterm election is less than a month away, and states and counties are already preparing for polling. Part of that preparation involves testing voting machines and making sure all parts are working properly.

Election Systems & Software (ES&S) produces voting machines used in Alabama. Monday, Tallapoosa County Probate Judge Talmadge East participated in a training session where ES&S representatives showed a small group of county employees how to operate the machines and get them ready on Election Day. The machines will be transported to the county’s 26 precincts before the election, and poll workers at those sites will be responsible for starting the machines.

The testing took place in the basement of a courthouse annex. DS200 poll place ballot scanner and vote tabulators, along with ExpressVote Universal Voting System machines, were turned on as the group looked for technical issues. East said it was crucial to test the machines weeks before the election if a repair was needed or a part needed to be ordered.

ES&S Machines

ES&S tabulation software is developed and compiled in the United States. Machines are assembled in the U.S. However, some components are made overseas.

“Components are tested and verified before being certified at the state level,” ES&S states on its website. “These components are then used in the final assembly of the voting machines, which occurs in the USA.“

The DS200 is an optical-scan vote tabulation machine that creates audit logs and uses proprietary flash drives, encryption and hash validation.

The ExpressVote Universal Voting System uses a touchscreen for those with disabilities. It features accessibility devices and produces a printed record for tabulation.

ExpressVote Universal Voting System. Photo: Erica Thomas.

Machine testing and protocol

The testing process began Monday with an explanation from an ES&S representative on how to start the machine on the morning of the elections. The representative started out with machines that are handicap accessible. She told the group a simple password that is used for all of the machines to set them up for Election Day. The testing checklist included calibrating the touchscreen, inserting a thumb drive, plugging in headphones, checking and setting the date and time on the machine and closing and locking the access door where the thumb drive is stored.

The testing was not completed Monday because of a mix-up with ES&S on the testing date. The company said it would come back Thursday to complete testing.

On Election Day, poll workers will be provided with details of how to start the machines, and at least three people in the probate office will be available to assist them by phone or in person if needed, East said.

Addressing possible issues

In Lee County, there was a concern earlier this year during testing. ES&S confirmed a scanned copy of a legal mail ballot was put into the DS200 machine and was counted. However, the company said if the ballot had been inserted during a "live, controlled election environment," the ballot would have been caught and not been counted. ES&S said during live elections, machines only accept ballots they are programmed to receive. There is no way for the public to test that claim.

A representative at the Tallapoosa County testing site Monday said it would be unlikely for a fake ballot to be counted because of all the checks and balances at polling places.

"If, hypothetically, someone brought multiple ballots to a poll site and attempted to vote multiple ballots and scan them in, the results tapes and the precinct count would reflect that fact," said Katina Granger, the senior manager of public relations with ES&S. "It would also be observed and prohibited by the polling officials."

East said while it wouldn't be impossible, his county has set protocols that involve several people in an official capacity watching one another during voting.

"I'm not sure that nothing has ever happened before, but it would take a conspiracy of more than one," said East. "It would take conspiracy of the entire canvassing board. I'm not going to say it is impossible, I'm sure it's not impossible, but it's just a highly unlikely conspiracy. It would take a grand conspiracy … and it would be even harder to hide it."

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An added layer of protection comes along with the physical paper ballot, Granger told 1819 News. Each ballot is saved in case hand-counting becomes necessary. If a fake ballot was counted through the machine, the ES&S representative on-site Monday said the number on the ballot machine would not match the number of ballots distributed, and that would be enough to alert election officials.

However, when it comes to picking out the bad ballot from the pile so that it would not get counted, the representative said she had never seen a copied ballot, so she could not determine if it would be obvious enough to know to remove that ballot.

ES&S said attempting to manipulate voting counts is illegal, and election officials watch the polls and handle ballots "with the highest degree of security."

In Tallapoosa County, as voters cast their ballots, results are saved to a jump drive connected to the voting machine. After polls close, that jump drive is taken out of the machine and inserted into a laptop that East said has never been connected to the internet. From there, it is put on another jump drive and then put into another computer that is connected to the internet. From that computer, results are transmitted to the secretary of state's office.

"This is how we do it," said East. "I don't know how other counties do it."

East said the next week is spent certifying the election and releasing official voting results.

East explained that his team is prepared to respond if problems arise on Election Day.

Who is in charge of elections?

In Alabama, the Probate Judge of each county is considered the chief elections official, and the Secretary of State is the chief elections official in the state.

East said he would communicate with the secretary of state's office if issues were reported. He said he has always received support from Merrill and ES&S when needed. However, problems are not always communicated with the secretary of state's office.

"We coordinate with them," said Secretary of State John Merrill. "I would not say that we have authority over them. We work with them … to make sure that we're all where we need to be as far as training and poll workers are concerned, administration of election is concerned, and all of the things that relate to that success."

Merrill said if a situation concerning an allegation against a probate judge were brought to his attention, his office would address that situation immediately. He also said the investigation would involve law enforcement.

See something, say something

Merrill said it is the citizen's duty to watch the polls to ensure things are correctly done.

"That is something that is a part of your obligation as a citizen, is to do the right thing the right way and to make sure that if you see something that you report it," said Merrill. "You can't make people do it, but it is important.

"… If you see something, say something, and we need to make sure that people do that because there is an understanding that that can be the only way that we know something is wrong."

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Complaints and concerns can be reported to the probate judge, the sheriff, the circuit clerk, the secretary of state's office, the attorney general's office or the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).

The general election will be held on November 8. The last day to register to vote in the election is October 24.

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