Students find new uses for old Ohio voting machines that shouldn't have been sold to Dispatch

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Government offices have different ways of dealing with stuff they formally declare is no longer needed. Electronics often are shipped to a recycler, but furniture, vehicles, clothing and other items sometimes are offered for sale to the general public.

Licking County offers old equipment, confiscated property and other items on GovDeals.com, an online auction site used by government offices across the country.

For a couple of months earlier this year, the county’s board of elections posted a handful of different auctions for “Diebold AccuVote-TSx” voting machines, purchased for $2,700 each in 2005 and ’06. The lots sold for between $7 and $19.

“Be Creative… what could I do with a Used Voting Machine?,” the auction listing read.

The Dispatch took the suggestion literally and bought one lot of five machines at a cost of $3.40 each, receiving touchscreen units and stands, along with headphones, keypads, memory cards, keys and voter access cards.

The actual elections software was removed before the sale, but the units were otherwise functional.

The newspaper took possession in late April, then contacted several area schools to recruit students to try to reprogram them for some other use. Two of the units were adopted by the Columbus Academy in Gahanna and Dublin City Schools Emerald Campus, where engineering students had several weeks to work on them before school recessed for the summer.

The short answer to the reprogramming question: Yes. They can be reused for other purposes.

The long answer, however, is don’t count on any more trickling into private hands for any sort of reuse.

“Under no circumstances should a voting machine be sold to someone who’s not an authorized user,” said Secretary of State Frank LaRose, whose office issued an advisory to county elections officials reminding them of disposal requirements after questions from The Dispatch about the surplus touchscreens the newspaper bought.

Hackers

Ohio’s elections, using the electronic systems implemented since the days of punch cards and hanging chads are secure, LaRose said, with a system of checks and balances and close tabs kept on the equipment involved and the ballot counting process.

Ohio’s touchscreen voting units, for example, do not allow wireless access and are never connected to the Internet. The machines are kept under lock at boards of elections offices, with two keys — one held by a Republican, the other by a Democrat — required for entry. That’s not even mentioning the tracking and other security protocols in place when machines are moved and votes are tallied.

That said, it’s no secret that the electronic voting machines have security flaws. A quick Internet search reveals a trove of videos and articles on the potential damage that could be done by those wanting to alter election results.

Cole Duffy, 18, a graduating senior at the Columbus Academy who plans to pursue a degree in information technology security at the University of Cincinnati this fall, quickly found the users manual for the Diebold units and a government-produced study of their security issues.

“If I had the right tools, I could do whatever,” he said. “If you do enough research in advance, it’s not hard to be able to take these on.”

Juniors Nikolas Wagner, 16, Dustin Ryan, 17, and Cooper Schenk, 16, and graduating senior Andrew Holaday, 18, fiddled with one of the Diebold machines in their classroom at Dublin City Schools Emerald Campus.

Students at both schools quickly determined how to access administrator functions, something that normally couldn’t be done without the right access cards.

Greg King, engineering teacher at the Dublin campus, said he was most concerned about an internal activity log his students found, noting the times that machines were used. With that sort of information and some help on the inside, someone bent on wrongdoing could determine the best time to hack a machine without anyone noticing.

But it’s also important to note that there’s no evidence that Ohio’s machines have been hacked or the outcomes of elections have been altered by those with criminal intent.

“To tamper with a statewide election, it would take a lot of resources and a pretty sophisticated organization or somebody on the inside,” King said.

Barring access at a board of elections offices, hackers would have to try to access machines in busy polling places.

“It would be extremely difficult to get into without anyone noticing you’re doing something suspicious,” Ryan said.

Duffy added: “There’s not a lot you can do quickly.”

Alternate Uses

On one hand, the old voting machines are effectively obsolete.

They run on an older Windows operating system, the screens aren’t too sensitive when multiple touches are involved, and some of the ports have long been abandoned by the industry, so finding keyboards and other peripherals is a challenge.

“It’s not worth the effort,” Duffy said. “It’s just so old … It was good for its time, but you’re not going to get good quality out of it.”

With a little know-how, however, the old voting machines could be repurposed.

The students agreed that the existing circuit boards would have to be replaced with new microcomputers. For less than $100, a Raspberry Pi could be installed and programmed for simple arcade games or other uses.

The printers on the units purchased by The Dispatch worked fine, and the Dublin students suggested setting the voting machines up as cash registers for small businesses or startups.

The Columbus Academy plans to transform its unit for use in future student council elections, said Todd Martin, technology integration specialist, who teaches science and engineering at the school

Licking County’s online voting machine auctions didn’t generate a whole lot of interest among buyers, which might be a good thing, considering state elections officials say such sales to private parties aren’t allowed.

The Ohio Election Official Manual includes a permanent directive issued in late 2015 that outlines how equipment is to be disposed, with a series of forms that must be filed with the Secretary of State’s Office and permission obtained before transfer.

Licking County officials have since filed the required paperwork and plan to recycle the remainder of their elections machines.

Practically speaking, elections boards can send the touchscreens to another county, or they can find a qualified recycler. The Franklin County commissioners recently approved the disposal of 4,735 “iVotronic DRE” voting machines, which were replaced earlier this year by a new balloting system.

Back in 2006, the bulk of the machines and peripheral equipment were purchased with taxpayer dollars at a cost of about $3,030 each, or a total of more than $12 million. Elections Director Ed Leonard said Lake County might take some of the machines for spare parts, but most are headed in coming days to a recycler for final destruction.

LaRose, an Army veteran who has served as an elections observer overseas and been on hand in other countries during their first elections, said he’s thought about other uses for the old equipment, including sending it to other countries.

But most aren’t interested in the outdated equipment or are using paper ballots or other means for voting.

Given existing state and federal regulations, there’s no feasible way to allow the reuse of the machines for something other than elections.

Regardless, LaRose said he didn’t foresee a time in the immediate future when his office would approve any sales to private parties.

“To have something that looks like a voting machine out there in the general public being used to play Pac-Man on would create perception problems,” he said. “To trivialize (elections) in that way would probably not be a good idea.”

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