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Maryland elections board identifies network problem that slowed poll books during special primary

The Maryland Board of Elections has identified and largely resolved a problem with its wireless poll book network that slowed special primary voting earlier this month. In this Feb. 4, 2020, photo, voters lineup at Westside Skill Center to cast a ballots in the 7th Congressional District.
The Maryland Board of Elections has identified and largely resolved a problem with its wireless poll book network that slowed special primary voting earlier this month. In this Feb. 4, 2020, photo, voters lineup at Westside Skill Center to cast a ballots in the 7th Congressional District.(Karl Merton Ferron)

After more than 20 hours of testing, the Maryland Board of Elections has identified and largely resolved a problem with its wireless poll book network that slowed special primary voting earlier this month and led officials to reverse course on requiring counties to use the technology in coming state elections.

State elections administrators said they hope their work alleviates local jurisdictions’ concerns about using the network moving forward, though their oversight panel voted Thursday to leave that decision to local officials.

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The problem slowed the performance of electronic poll books that use a database of registered voters to check people in at polling places. The poll books were connected to a wireless cellular network that sent data in real time to the state board for the first time during the Feb. 4 special primary in the 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.

“While we are still testing and analyzing results, we would like to share what we know so far,” board administrators wrote in a report to the oversight panel. “We have confirmed that the database became locked when performing multiple functions simultaneously. This prevented the electronic poll books from retrieving the requested voter information and slowed down the check-in process."

The slowdowns caused some voters to experience delays, which prompted the board to halt the wireless transfer of data with a couple of hours of voting left. The move resolved the slowdown immediately, officials said, and no one was prevented from voting.

Afterward, local jurisdictions, some lawmakers in Annapolis and other elections watchers expressed concerns about the potential impact of such slowdowns in the regular April 28 primary and the Nov. 4 general election, when lines of voters are expected to be much longer. They also raised again concerns about the security of the wireless cellular network.

Their concerns, along with a desire by the board to ensure voter trust in the system, prompted the board to change its policy. It no longer required the network’s use on April 28 or Nov. 4. The board also promised a swift study to figure out what went wrong and fix it.

On Thursday, administrators said they are well on their way, with recent tests showing that the locking issue had been resolved.

“After making adjustments to database performance settings, the database did not lock during our test of over 600,000 transactions,” the board wrote in its report. “Once this round of testing is complete, we will work with external database developers to validate these changes and, if appropriate, implement additional recommendations to improve the performance of the database."

The 600,000 transactions over 20 hours of testing was a stress level approaching what is expected during April’s primary, said Nikki Charlson, the state board’s deputy administrator.

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The changes will continue to be “thoroughly tested” before the April 28 primary.

If the testing goes well, any of the state’s six largest jurisdictions that have the capability and would like to use the wireless cellular network to connect their poll books to the state board in real time for the primary or the general election will be able to, but will not be forced to, the board’s oversight panel ruled Thursday. Jurisdictions will also be able to connect a subset of their poll books to the network if they want to try the connection on a smaller scale, officials said.

The network will still be used in early voting, as it has been for every election since 2010, the oversight panel decided.

“Like all decisions we make, we are taking these steps to give voters full confidence that their voting experience will be safe, timely, and secure,” the board wrote in its report.

After the board dropped its requirement that local jurisdictions use the network earlier this month, Baltimore City and Montgomery County opted out. Howard County said it would continue to use the system, pending a review. Baltimore County said it would await more information.

On Friday, Baltimore elections director Armstead Jones said he would discuss with the local election board at its next meeting, not yet scheduled, whether the city will use the system.

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Howard County’s election director, Guy Mickley, said the county was “currently conducting testing which will dictate what we do for the primary," and would hold off on making a decision on whether to use the network during the general election. Jim Shalleck, president of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, also said they were “evaluating all of this data and information in our decision-making process for the upcoming election.”

Alisha Alexander, the elections administrator in Prince George’s County, said Friday that her county election board meets Monday, and she plans to recommend the county still not use the wireless cellular network, based on concerns about a potential slowdown during voting.

“They said that many of the issues were tweaked, but we just don’t know at this point,” Alexander said.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

State officials have said it is secure, and at the meeting Thursday shared a statement stressing the same from Verizon, which provided the network.

“The technology selected to implement same-day registration uses highly secure wireless cellular technology, not unsecured WiFi technology," the statement read. "The wireless technology selected has been tested in real time in test environments. Our support securities team, which is comprised of internal and external security experts, has developed comprehensive security standards for designing, deploying and managing our network based on industry practices and established standards.”

The company said those guidelines are set by the International Organization for Standardization and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Officials from Cradlepoint, a company that provided routers used to connect poll books during the special primary, also addressed the board Thursday and acknowledged the company had identified a “bug" during the election that it had not seen before, but “quickly addressed it within 15 minutes.” Officials said that issue had not caused any broader problems.

The oversight panel also ruled that local jurisdictions shall use the routers to connect individual poll books within precincts to help prevent voters from voting more than once in single locations. But they also encouraged state and local elections officials to monitor the routers throughout the voting process.

Elections officials have said they remain bullish on the wireless cellular network, a $2 million investment funded in large part with federal dollars because it worked well for them “without issue over 13 hours” before the slowdown.

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“We received over 72,000 transactions, monitored poll book activity at over 300 precincts, and loaded voter history into MDVOTERS in time for the three local boards to prepare for the absentee and provisional canvasses," the board wrote. “For the first time ever, election officials were able to confirm the on-time opening of polling places in real time and receive immediate feedback if a poll book was not operating as expected. This information allows us to better serve our voters and improve their voting experience.”

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