Election technology has improved since the 2000 presidential election "hanging chad" debacle, but new and old threats may put your vote at risk.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

October 24, 2012

10 Min Read

Could the U.S. elections be hacked, allowing attackers to adjust ballot counts and alter election results?

That threat, to be sure, sounds like little more than a Hollywood movie plot. Furthermore, based on recent reviews of states' voting system readiness, the more likely scenario is that voting systems in key swing states would simply crash. Cue delayed elections and potentially, disenfranchised voters with uncounted votes.

On the other hand, given the widespread and well-documented flaws in electronic voting systems, as well as the potential for such systems to crash or behave erratically, election officials must keep a close eye not just on the voting systems' physical and information security, but also the vote results themselves, to ensure that every vote counts. Here are 10 related facts.

1. Good News: Technology Now Records More Votes Properly

According to a report released earlier this month by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, which was launched in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, changes in voting technology have reduced the difference between votes cast and votes counted. That difference stems both from technology-related failures, including vote-counting systems being unable to properly read what a user has filled out on an optically scanned paper ballot, as well as from user errors, such as a voter picking two candidates for a single office.

[ Learn more about the tech behind Election 2012: How Voters Play Smartphone Politics. ]

Overall, the difference between votes cast and counted dropped from 2% in 2000, to 1% in 2006. Technologically speaking, what's facilitated that change? Start with awareness--as well as public shaming--after the 2000 presidential elections saw Florida officials become a punchline owing to the failure of the state's circa-1960s punch-card election technology. In particular, vote-tabulating machines weren't able to count ballots with incompletely punched holes, also known as hanging, dimpled, or pregnant chads. While the problem was widespread, the presidential election results hinged on the state's voters, and officials struggled to produce an accurate count of how votes had actually been cast.

2. Key Equipment Meltdowns Could Scuttle Election Results

What do Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and Pennsylvania all have in common? They occupy the top-five list of the "riskiest states for an e-voting meltdown." The list, detailed on the Freedom to Tinker blog, is based in part on the Counting Votes 2012 study of states' election preparedness, the VerifiedVoting.org Verifier database of the election technology that's currently being used by different states, and the relative likelihood that it will fail.

While the four researchers who authored the e-voting meltdown study said that "a meltdown scenario is very unlikely"--as is a "knife-edge selection" of the type that occurred in Florida in 2000--they still decided to review the likelihood that such problems could "cause a state to cast the deciding electoral college vote that would flip the election winner from one candidate to the other." Ohio, beware.

3. Recession Slows New Voting Technology Adoption

In the wake of the 2000 Florida vote-counting debacle, numerous states quickly dumped their antiquated punch-card-type systems. Unfortunately, the rush to find a new solution led many to adopt electronic voting systems--some with touchscreens--without first thoroughly vetting the technology. In short order, security experts began reporting that such technology employed proprietary systems predicated on "security through obscurity," and typically sported numerous physical as well as information security vulnerabilities.

4. Diebold Machines Remain In Use

In particular, Diebold soon became the face of electronic voting machines' failures, in large measure because the company's machines--as well as those of its competitors--were black boxes. Chief amongst electronic voting machines' list of faults, however, was that they failed to generate a paper-based audit trail. As a result, not only could the machines be hacked, but such hacking might never be detected. After those deficiencies came to light, California was one of the first states to review its use of electronic voting machines, and in 2007 the state decertified their use for voting, pending security improvements and the inclusion of a paper-based audit trail. Interestingly, California's election officials also began actively recommending that counties switch to optically scanned paper ballots, with a report noting that they are "more transparent, and significantly easier to audit." Meanwhile, Diebold ultimately renamed its electronic voting machine division as Premier Election Solutions and sold the division to competitor ES&S for $5 million, plus some revenue that was due.

After having spent millions of dollars to procure electronic voting systems, multiple states have likewise since dumped them. According to Larry Moore, CEO and founder of Clear Ballot, which provides a system that creates rapid audits of optically scanned paper ballots, "75% of the country--and growing--is moving over to optically scanned paper ballots." But the shift away from electronic voting systems, at least in some states, has been slowed by the recession, and budget deficits.

5. All Voting Technology Can Stumble

While a voting system meltdown is unlikely, the possibility that it could happen highlights that no voting technology is perfect. In 2010, for example, more than one-third of votes in a South Bronx voting precinct in New York State were miscounted by an ES&S electronic voting machine that overheated, reported radio station WNYC.

But the machine didn't fail outright. Instead, it began voting on its own. "There's some kind of defect in these machines that when they overheat they can create what they're calling phantom votes," said Larry Norden, a deputy director with the Brennan Center for Justice, which is a voting rights organization that filed a related lawsuit over the miscounted votes. "That could mean that if the person hasn't voted in a contest, they could have a vote attributed to them that they never intended to cast. In the case of these voters in the South Bronx what it meant was that they actually meant to vote for somebody and the machine was adding votes in those contests because it had overheated."

6. Internet Voting No Panacea

Why not simply move elections online? The city of Washington, D.C., gave that approach a try in 2010, when it created a pilot project designed to test allowing absentee voters located overseas to cast votes using an election website. But according to a research paper delivered earlier this year at the Conference on Financial Cryptography & Data Security by three University of Michigan researchers who'd been invited to participate in the four-day mock online voting trial, they quickly identified exploitable vulnerabilities.

"Within 48 hours of the system going live, we had gained near-complete control of the election server," according to the researchers. "We successfully changed every vote and revealed almost every secret ballot. Election officials did not detect our intrusion for nearly two business days--and might have remained unaware for far longer had we not deliberately left a prominent clue." As a result of the researchers' efforts, D.C. officials scuttled their planned rollout of the "D.C. Digital Vote-by-Mail Service" system

7. Online Voting Systems Face DDoS Attack Risk

Meanwhile, other security experts have warned that any connected Internet voting system would be vulnerable to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which would allow hackers to disrupt voting. If leading Wall Street banks can't block DDoS attacks about which they've been warned in advance--owing to the sheer bandwidth employed by attackers--is it reasonable to expect that Alabama, Alaska, or the other 48 states could keep their voting systems online during a sustained election day attack?

Furthermore, if Iran, as U.S. officials allege, is really behind the banking attacks, what's to stop its government, or any other group that may have a beef with the United States, from knocking offline the online voting systems of a swing state? So-called "cyber warfare" won't safeguard citizens' right to vote.

8. Voter Registration Rolls Vulnerable To Hackers

If Internet voting isn't safe, surely registering online, as some states now allow, is safe? Both Maryland and Washington State, for example, now allow voters to register online, using their name, birthdate, address, and party affiliation. Unfortunately, all of that information is not only publicly available, but regularly--and legally--bought and sold by political parties, and distributed to their political operatives. What's the risk? Simply put, large numbers of voters could be disenfranchised from voting if a hacker reassigned their voting precinct to another one located across the state, requiring them to either travel to the other precinct, or to fill out a provisional ballot. Either way, that could prevent the state resident from voting in local, or in some cases even Congressional, elections.

Voting rights groups hadn't been paying attention to how such systems were created. "We thought, 'How badly could you mess that up?' Well, we learned," Rebecca Wilson, co-director of non-profit group Save Our Votes, told The New York Times, which first reported the story of the Maryland and Washington security vulnerabilities. "Now, anyone in the world can write a computer program that commits absentee ballot fraud on a mass scale."

Of course, any election-related system that's connected to the Internet is potentially at risk of being hacked. "If big, Internet-based companies like Yahoo, LinkedIn, or Sony can fall to hackers, then, yeah, big government databases and local authorities who actually administer the election process can be hacked," Stephen Cobb, security evangelist for ESET, told Dark Reading. "I'm somewhat surprised it hasn't happened yet."

9. Voting Legitimacy At Risk

Beyond overt hacking, another way that elections can be compromised--and trigger related lawsuits from irate voters--is if voters don't believe that their votes were accurately recorded. Furthermore, according to a June 2012 poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports, half of U.S. voters don't think elections are fair to voters.

"There are two purposes to an election: one is to decide a winner, and two is to confer legitimacy upon the winner," said Clear Ballot's Moore. "If a substantial portion of voters don't feel their vote is being legitimately counted, then there's no legitimacy."

Here's how one voter in Texas, in a precinct that uses touchscreen voting systems, sees the problem: "When I vote, the election officials give me a sticker. There are two choices. One says 'I Voted,' the other reads 'My Vote Counted,'" according to an online comment made to the "Risk of E-Voting Meltdown" blog post. "I won't accept a 'My Vote Counted' sticker because I have no faith that it is correct. ... I've looked into early voting, but that's still done with the electronic systems. Absentee voting is done on paper, but under Texas law I'm not eligible to vote absentee unless I spend an entire month away from home."

10. Surveys Could Detect Failures

Changes are being put in place to help detect voting system irregularities, regardless of how they might have been caused. For starters, two-thirds of states will offer many of their residents a way to verify that their votes were correctly captured, if requested, for example by having the system read back the votes they've selected.

Clear Ballot, meanwhile, is currently working with three states--Florida, New Hampshire, and New York--to audit some of their election results, and it hopes that more states will use its technology to provide an independent audit of election results. However they're conducted, audits are essential for spotting breakdowns in the vote-counting process. Norden at the Brennan Center for Justice, for example, has said that "over votes"--when someone has apparently voted for more than one person for the same office--are extremely rare. Accordingly, a spike in over votes, as happened in the South Bronx, most typically indicates a voting machine or vote-counting failure.

Thankfully, audits are on the increase. "This year, officials in half the states will carry out some kind of post-election audit using ... records of voter intent to check the functioning of the vote counting technology in local use," according to the Caltech/MIT report. "Though many of these audits lack robustness at present, enormous progress is being made as states examine more effective and efficient ways to audit."

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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