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.
Guarding Presidential Election Vote Integrity Presents a Daunting Task
The party issued a formal public apology to the Sanders camp for the leadership’s failure to remain impartial.
In August, Russian hackers were also implicated in attacks on the voting registration systems for two states, Illinois and Arizona, according to a leaked FBI memo.
Playing to his core constituents, Republican nominee Donald Trump warned in August that he would “not be surprised” if the election was “rigged.”
Yet, rigging a U.S presidential election is a tall order. While theoretically possible, almost all states have implemented in the last decade some sort of paper trail. Only five states do not have any voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT), the minimum standard for verification of vote via paper receipt. Another 10 states have an uneven mix of paper ballot and electronic systems that do not leave a paper trail, according to Verified Voting.
Those 15 states whose voters cast some portion of their ballots via electronic, paperless voting—known in the industry as direct recording electronic (DRE) voting—should concern election officials, Vanessa Teague, voting security expert and senior lecturer in the department of computing and information systems at the University of Melbourne, Australia, told eWEEK.
“In the short term, the number of paperless DREs in the U.S. is a cause for very serious concern,” she said. “I wish that the concerns of [U.S.] e-voting and security experts had been heeded in time to fix them before the upcoming election.”
Given the suspected involvement of a foreign power in the current hacks of election sites and the DNC, election officials should also worry about the impact of the equivalent of a denial-of-service attack on the election system. Even if attackers could not change the results, deleting votes or causing discrepancies in the vote tally could cause disruptions and increase distrust in an already-fractured political environment.
“Even if it is not a close election, it would not be hard to do something disruptive,” UM’s Halderman said. An example would be “making the machines not work in a key state. We absolutely need some way of catching fraud and error, if they occur.”
To do that, we need regular, random election audits. Unfortunately, more than half the states in the United States do not have adequate auditing processes. Only a single state, New Mexico, has an excellent process for auditing the vote and triggering a recount, according to Verified Voting. Another seven states have processes considered “good.”
“The crucial issue is, ‘If something went wrong, would we know?'” University of Melbourne’s Teague said.
The focus on the machines and voting will be good in the long run, and no election official wants to be the equivalent of 2016’s Florida, says Verified Voting’s Smith.
“One thing I do know is that election officials are working hard to make sure there is trust in their elections,” she said. “Election officials do not want it to go wrong, and this news cycle has been challenging because everyone is starting to pay a lot more attention.”
In the end, the contentiousness in U.S. politics may turn small discrepancies into larger issues, leaving election officials will a common hope, Smith said.
“The prayer of election officials is for large margins,” she said.