MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A federal judge declined Tuesday to order election officials in Tennessee’s largest county to perform rigorous safeguards to its voting systems ahead of early voting for the November elections.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker denied a request for an order requiring that the Shelby County Election Commission ask the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to perform risk and vulnerability assessments on electronic voting systems.
A petition for a temporary restraining order was made by attorney Carol Chumney, who represents a group of voters in a lawsuit seeking to preserve the integrity of the November election. The suit filed last week alleges the outdated touchscreen voting machines used by Shelby County are insecure because they do not produce a voter-verifiable paper trail, and security checks and other safeguards are needed to protect the system from outside manipulation.
Chumney also asked that officials require voting systems vendor Election Systems & Software to install advanced security sensors on their system, allow an outside expert to review election security procedures, and permit candidates’ poll watchers to observe collection of memory cards and vote tabulation.
Parker ruled that it was not the role of the federal court to tell county officials how to conduct elections.
“The mechanism of elections is inherently a state and local function and federal courts should be cautious,” Parker said during a hearing in federal court in Memphis.
Also, it’s likely be too late to complete the security checks requested by Chumney, the judge said. Early voting starts Wednesday, and election commission lawyer John Ryder said about 200 voting machines are already in place for that process.
Another 1,000 machines have been programmed and are ready to be tested for use on Nov. 6, Ryder said.
Cybersecurity experts have long complained that the nation’s antiquated elections infrastructure is vulnerable to tampering, now a critical concern given documented Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. Those activities included probes of elections systems in at least 21 states, a hack into the Illinois voter-registration database, and attempts to hack a Florida maker of electronic poll books.
In addition to the security checks, Chumney’s lawsuit also asks that Parker order the state and county election commissions to scrap its electronic voting machines with paper ballots. Shelby County’s voting machines were purchased more than a decade ago, making them and the software they use unreliable and vulnerable to manipulation, she said.
Fourteen counties already use machines with a proper paper trail, and Shelby County should switch over to paper ballots in the next year, Chumney said.
Parker has not ruled on that issue. Parker questioned whether Chumney had enough evidence to prove her allegations that the county’s voting machines are highly unreliable and less accurate than paper ballots, calling some of her claims “hypothetical.”
Parker also said there are lawsuits challenging both types of voting processes in the federal court system.
“So far, there’s no such thing as a foolproof system,” the judge said. “If there’s no such thing as a foolproof system, then what level of inaccuracy can we live with?”
Replacing the Shelby County election system could take two years, said Janet Kleinfelter, a lawyer for Secretary of State Tre Hargett. County elections officials have expressed a desire to purchase new voting machines that have voter-verifiable paper trails, Ryder said.
In a letter to Chumney, Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins said the Election Commission has joined a nationwide initiative, the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center. The center offers cyber-defense tools, including threat and vulnerability monitoring.
A decision on replacing the voting system rests with the Shelby County Election Commission, Goins said.