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A contractor’s laptop and several encrypted USB devices were stolen from Philadelphia’s election warehouse in the East Falls neighborhood sometime this week, the Inquirer reported Wednesday. Police are investigating, and election officials assure voters that voting integrity is in no way compromised by the theft. New machines implemented earlier this year all include a paper trail as an added security measure.
But a Thursday morning visit to the warehouse where the machines are stored revealed lax security measures.
This reporter was able to walk into the building and roam around unattended for several minutes before being asked to leave. He strolled past hundreds of voting machines, various boxes, and other unidentified equipment without seeing other people.
Eventually, the reporter stumbled upon a staffer in an office, who said press was not allowed in the building and escorted the reporter to the door, locking it behind him. The staffer declined to answer questions about security, or answer why it was so easy to enter. No security cameras were immediately visible, either inside or outside the building.
A security guard should have been stationed outside the door, said Deputy Commissioner Nick Custodio. Reached by phone, Custodio said he did not know whether the guard was supposed to be there 24 hours or only during operating hours.
Custodio, who works for the Office of City Commissioners, which oversees elections in Philadelphia, said he would address the situation.
Current policy limits building access to only approved staff and authorized guests, according to city spokesperson Mike Dunn.
“As the Mayor committed yesterday, we are moving swiftly to enhance the security measures for the facility,” Dunn told Billy Penn, adding that changes would be “put into place expeditiously.”
In response to the theft and a reporter’s subsequent access to the warehouse, Dunn said new enhancements would include:
- Greatly increasing the number of security personnel stationed at the site (24/7)
- Adding a round-the-clock police presence
- Instituting a strict logging procedure for anyone entering and exiting the buildings
- Enforcing strict adherence to the current policy
The warehouse is situated in a semi-industrial area surrounded by other warehouses in a neighborhood that’s tucked next to the Schuylkill River as it stretches northwest from Center City into Fairmount Park. Getting there requires navigating an out-of-the-way back road, and going to the back of a lot to find a nondescript brick building. No sign indicates there are election materials inside.
As the reporter left the warehouse, a guard was visible at the other side of the building. More staffers later arrived at the facility, with one taking up a station outside the door.
It’s so far unclear exactly what other materials are stored in the election machine warehouse. (Billy Penn has requested an inventory.) Rolled out last year to great hubbub and at a cost of $30 million, the new voting equipment leaves a paper ballot trail while also recording each person’s vote electronically.
Reached Thursday afternoon, Bob Brady, chair of Philly’s Democratic Party, was outraged by the situation.
“That’s disgraceful,” said the former U.S. representative. “How could that happen? I can’t believe it. That somebody could walk into the warehouse — especially a reporter. I would have grabbed you by the neck.”