The Real Problem with Voting Security

Opinion: If the vote is stolen this year, it will be poorly trained poll workers, not hackers, who are to blame.

On Nov. 7, a third of all U.S. voters will encounter electronic voting machines for the first time. As is the case in nearly any human enterprise that goes through a massive change, there will be problems.

There will be people who cant vote when they wish because poll workers werent properly trained, or because somebody forgot some vital piece of voting equipment. Or worse, there wont be enough poll workers to handle the rush of voters, and things will just take a long time.

But what is almost certain not to happen is for the vote, any vote, to be hacked. This is because in reality, todays electronic voting machines are probably the most secure ever designed.

Despite the hysterical warnings of anti-electronic voting luddites, and the activists who yearn for a return to the paper ballot, its harder to cheat on todays machines than it ever has been.

Forty-six years ago, during the Presidential election of 1960, hundreds of ballot boxes containing thousands of votes on paper ballots mysteriously disappeared in Chicago during the supposedly secure transfer between the polling places and the counting facility. They were gone for hours.

When they finally showed up, those ballot boxes contained a victory to John F. Kennedy. The question thats frequently asked, but which has never been answered, was whether something happened to those ballot boxes while they were out of sight.

A dozen years later, while I was a young reporter for a television station in Virginia, I noticed that the board of elections had taken to reading the counters on every voting machine both before and after they were moved to polling places, and the machines were sealed each time. Why?

The jostling the lever-based mechanical voting machines took while being transferred meant that the counters sometimes changed themselves. Numbers would be different just because of mechanical stress on the voting machines.

At a few polling places in Florida during the 2000 election, optical scan ballots in some precincts couldnt be counted accurately. The ballots had to be counted by hand, delaying the vote count by a day, and introducing the potential for inaccuracy.

Vote fraud? Not exactly.

The county involved was trying to save money and was given the job for printing the machine-readable ballots to a printer with no experience printing such forms. The timing marks were every so slightly misplaced, and the ballots couldnt be read by the optical scan machines.

/zimages/5/28571.gifNo vote of confidence for e-voting. Click here to read more.

Confounding things, voting officials were doing everything they could to move away from paper ballots, if only because it was so easy to stuff ballot boxes.

All it would take is a loss of physical security for even a few minutes to swing a close election. And the loss of physical security for hours, as happened in Illinois, could result in a vote swing even in an election that isnt particularly close.

The solution for many localities was the mechanical voting machine. It might be cumbersome and prone to glitches, but it was hard to find a way to change large numbers of votes quickly. On the other hand, there was no way to tell whether that had happened or not. Mechanical voting machines had no audit trail at all.

But what voting officials did learn was that physical security of the voting machines was critical. Paper ballots and their easy-to-stuff ballot boxes were abandoned quickly except in the smallest communities.

Next Page: Hacking the vote not likely.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...