Guarding Presidential Election Vote Integrity Presents a Daunting Task

In light of alleged Russian attacks on U.S. election databases, security experts warn some states may have problems proving the integrity of their vote tally.  

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The U.S. election system will likely face a significant trial this year, thanks to a summer of startling revelations including nation-state-linked attacks targeting the Democratic National Committee and state voter databases, along with a statement of no-confidence by the Republican nominee.

The result has been a slew of media stories positing how the election could be hacked. The ongoing cyber-attacks and raised doubts will put states' choice of voting technology under the microscope, with a focus on the security of voting systems and the ability to audit the results produced by those balloting systems, according to election security experts.

Unfortunately, while all but five states now have at least some systems with a verifiable paper trail, more than half do not have meaningful post-election audits, according to Verified Voting, a group focused on improving election-system integrity and accuracy.

"We would like to see post-election audits everywhere," Pamela Smith, director of the group, told eWEEK. "There is actual research showing that being able to conduct a robust audit in a public way brings confidence in the election. A voter-verifiable paper ballot is a tool to instill confidence that the election has come to true result."

The spotlight on election security and doubts from grandstanding candidates brings into focus a truth about elections: They are only as good as the citizens' confidence in them. In the end, it matters little whether there is a threat and more whether the election technology and systems can convince the vast majority of people that the election was fair and accurate, J. Alex Halderman, professor of computer science and engineering at University of Michigan and director of UM's Center for Computer Security and Society, told eWEEK.

"Any election system must be able to prove to the supporters of the candidate who lost that the loser was indeed defeated," he said. "But unfortunately, the assertions … that the elections will be rigged are really hard to disprove."

U.S. elections have never been free from issues. The 2000 U.S. presidential election resulted in a contested vote in Florida, bringing the term "hanging chad" into the America's lexicon. It also resulted in the Help America Vote Act, a federal mandate to upgrade states' election systems.

In 2004, the race for the governor of Washington state was decided by 127 votes, amid legal challenges and a laundry list of election official mistakes, questionable ballots and polling-book discrepancies.

Unfortunately, many states purchased electronic systems that do not produce a verifiable paper record of a person's vote. The lack of a paper ballot makes any recount of the election meaningless. Now, a decade later, those systems are in need of upgrading, but many jurisdictions have put off the expensive process.

This summer's reports of nation-state cyber-attacks on election data systems have ratcheted up the pressure on election officials and political party leaders. Hackers—allegedly linked to the Russian government—compromised computers at the Democratic National Committee and in July leaked sensitive emails and documents.

Just before the Democratic National Convention convened, Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as DNC chairwoman, after leaked emails showed a lack of neutrality among the party leadership during the primary campaign that pitted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders against eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...