Nearly a year after the 2016 presidential election, many Americans have been forced, some for the very first time, to look critically at their voting protections, and recognize that US balloting systems are not nearly as impregnable as they once thought.

Clearly, the US intelligence reports about Russia hacks provided a long-overdue wake up call for this issue. The good news: some progress has been made in some jurisdictions in the last year. The bad news: that progress hasn’t been as widespread or comprehensive as the problem would seem to demand.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” said Larry Norden, of NYU’s nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “I’m heartened by the fact that, for instance, we’re seeing, in both House and Congress, bipartisan proposals to invest in increased election system security.”

Norden described “a general trend of [jurisdictions] moving to systems with paper ballots,” and enacting post-election auditing to confirm their election results.  

Verified Voting president Barbara Simons said the fact that any state remains entirely paperless is “just embarrassing,” let alone five (Georgia, New Jersey, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Delaware).

Others seemed more dubious. “I am always skeptical that the concerns will fade away as they have sometimes in the past, such as the concern with long lines after 2012,” said Luther Weeks, executive director of the Connecticut-based election-activist group CTVotersCount. “Yet, I believe there will be steady progress — it is unlikely that any new voting systems will be purchased that do not have paper ballots.”

However, said Weeks, the extent of that progress may be limited due to the “huge challenge” imposed by “low budgets, distributed management…and fear of federal control.”

Election consultant Pam Smith agreed that there has “definitely [been] a pattern towards more secure elections” across the country.

Some states appear to be ahead of the game. Virginia, for example, recently earned praise for decertifying all its touchscreen, paperless Direct Record Electronic (DRE) voting machines ahead of the termination date required by its own legislation.

Other states are still playing catch-up. After hackers breached Kennesaw State’s Center for Election Systems, which houses Georgia’s voter rolls, creates its ballots and tests its voting machines, Smith said Georgia was subject to “a lot of pressure to not wait until their voting system is literally unusable.” Now, she says, “it seems clear” that the state’s shift to paper is inevitable.

Smith also indicated that Delaware could be on the same path. And as paper-based voting becomes more normalized, “there may even be a ‘shame’ factor for battleground states that long resisted this trend,” said Maryland-based election activist Mary Kiraly. She points to Georgia and Pennsylvania as examples.

Still, Barbara Simons, president of the activist group Verified Voting, said the fact that any state remains entirely paperless is “just embarrassing,” let alone five (Georgia, New Jersey, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Delaware).

Simons described another eight, including Pennsylvania — a key battleground in the 2016 election — as “partially paperless.” She estimates 80% of Pennsylvania’s voters still use hackable paperless systems.

“If we can find $57 billion to increase our military budget, we should be able to find the teeny, teeny fraction of that amount that we need to make our election secure.”

NYU’s Norden said the machines used in these paperless systems are “among the oldest machines in the country.” You don’t need to be an expert to recognize that adding security risks associated with outdated systems to unverifiable election results opens the doors wide for hackers.

“Security involves prevention, detection, and recovery. When it comes to counting and totaling votes, paper ballots make all three clearly possible,” said Weeks. “Attacks on registration systems and mail-in voting can be much harder to prevent and detect, and almost impossible to recover from, after election day.”

Doug Kellner, Co-Chair of the New York State Board of Elections, believes that upgrading voting systems that are still vulnerable to hacking attacks should be the country’s number one priority.

But in New Jersey, a state Kellner described as “a prime target for new verifiable voting equipment,” it seems the problem can’t just be legislated away.

“New Jersey is an interesting situation,” said Simons. “They actually passed legislation calling for paper ballots, but they never funded it.” Lawmakers have since introduced a similar bill with the hope that it will fare better this time around.

The New Jersey situation is not an anomaly, either. In fact, Norden said, ”One of the things that we have documented at the Brennan Center is that there are a number of states where election officials are saying they need new voting equipment because their equipment has aged out, [but the] legislature has rejected funding to replace that equipment.”

Simons considers this inexcusable. “The fact of the matter is, when you think of all of the things that we in the country and many states spend money on, you would think that the security of our democracy would rank up pretty high in priority,” she said. “I mean, the idea that our elections are potentially at risk of being hacked by foreign entities should have every American up in arms.”

“This is a national security issue, and the government just approved, I think, a $57 billion increase in the military budget? I mean, if we can find $57 billion to increase our military budget, we should be able to find the teeny, teeny fraction of that amount that we need to make our election secure.”

In addition, Norden called for increased funding for “thorough threat assessments, upgrad[ed] IT structure, [and] post-election audits.”

Colorado is gearing up for the country’s first statewide election supplemented with a risk-limiting audit (RLA), an American Statistical Association-endorsed technique considered to be the gold standard of election verification by many experts.

As the various levels of government hierarchy squabble over funding — Is this a local, state, or federal responsibility? All of the above? — fears remain that the general public will lose interest in the issue in the years between presidential elections, as they have done in the past.

Though budgeting shortfalls may hit local agencies the hardest, money problems extend way up the ladder. The federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) — tasked with helping keep US elections fair and verifiable — managed to survive a Republican-led shutdown attempt earlier this year. But its budget is the lowest in a decade; the agency’s sub-$10 million allocations for 2018 represent a 44% decrease from 2008.

And Norden worries that more cuts may be coming: “There’s still lots of talk about cutting back on [the EAC] budget, which I also think would not be a good idea given the centrality they play in setting standards for voting systems including voting system security, and the centrality they could play in sharing information among election officials.”

Weeks also expressed concern that the Trump administration might still defund the commission, or “pack it with Republicans who believe only in mass voter fraud.”

US Election Assistance Commission

Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from EAC and C. J.™ / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There is also the issue of the EAC’s vacant commission seat: While the agency is meant to be headed by four commissioners, currently, only three of those spots are filled. But this is still nowhere near as bad as it was a few years ago; prior to 2014, all four seats sat unoccupied for a staggering two election cycles. One can see why this might be an issue given the agency’s critical role in administrating a process which has been called the most complex function of a modern state “short of going to war.”

Despite all this, Norden believes the EAC is safe for the time being. “I think enough people recognize the moment that we’re in and the central role that they can play, that I feel better than I have in a while that they should continue to function.”

In other areas, experts have reason to be optimistic: Colorado is gearing up for the country’s first statewide election supplemented with a risk-limiting audit (RLA), an American Statistical Association-endorsed technique considered to be the gold standard of election verification by many experts.

Analyzing a statistically-determined number of ballots, RLA auditors compare selections made on paper ballots to the results that were scanned into the vote tabulating systems. If they are satisfied that the variation between the two is insufficient to alter the contest’s outcome, the audit ends right there. If not, more ballots are added to the analysis group and the audit continues.

Rhode Island recently passed its own RLA law, and others have passed similar audit-mandating laws that, while not as highly-regarded as the RLA, will at least demand paper-based verification.

Meanwhile, there are vulnerabilities in the system that, Norden says, get too little attention: “When people think about security of voting systems, they’re very focused on the voting machine itself, but there’s lots of other things…whether it’s election-night reporting or the registration system that says whether or not a person’s allowed to vote in the first place, that we also have to [enact] security around.”

Although the public-at-large may not be aware of the extent of these vulnerabilities, hackers certainly are. This was recently confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security which found Russian hackers had targeted 20 state voter registration systems (the agency originally put the number at 21, but has since backtracked on their evaluation that Wisconsin’s system was among those targeted).

Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to assess the security of registration systems than of voting machines.

“The public interacts with the voting machines, so we all know what machines we’re voting on and whether or not they have paper records,” said Norden. “With registration, what is happening is not a matter of, necessarily, public record. So it’s harder to know.”

vote by Internet

Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Kevin Spencer / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“A good forty states have registration systems that date back at least a decade,” Norden added, “Which means, in many cases, they’re using software like Windows XP or Windows 2000 that may not be supported by the vendor anymore and that creates security risks.” One bit of good news: Norden indicated that some of these states are preparing to upgrade their registration systems.

Unfortunately, as with most things involving technology, new vulnerabilities are an ever-present danger.

“While we had this big win in paper ballots, we still have to worry about Internet voting,” said Smith. “There’s somebody who, every year, introduces Internet voting legislation.”

In light of all the news about hackers infiltrating banks and other institutions with mountains of resources at their disposal, Smith cannot understand how anybody could possibly trust Internet voting to be secure: “The very notion that local election officials would be able to protect themselves, when they are underfunded and under-resourced, is almost laughable.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from background (Michael Vadon / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and ballot (Rob Bertholf / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).


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3 years ago

If the statement : “A good forty states have registration systems that date back at least a
decade,” Norden added, “Which means, in many cases, they’re using
software like Windows XP or Windows 2000 that may not be supported by
the vendor anymore and that creates security risks.”, it makes no sense why the states’ voter rolls seem to present such controversy. The states’ responsibility of the upkeep of those rolls are paramount to the election integrity of our Constitutional Republic.
As for most Americans really caring about the integrity of U.S. elections, maybe so, however, the intended purpose of the definition of ‘integrity’ has long since evaporated from the vocabulary of this nation. The example set forth from January 20, 2009 until January 20, 2017 by the previous occupant of the oval office, demonstrated the lack of integrity, which his many worshippers, adopted as their own characteristic to flaunt as he did.

George W Obama
George W Obama
3 years ago

Election integrity is irrelevant when the bankers get to choose who you are allowed to vote for.

Hillary Clinton would have attacked Syria just like Trump

Hillary would be talking about attacking Iran just like Trump

Hillary would be placing more missiles on Russia’s front porch just like Trump

Hillary advocated building a physical barrier on the US border with Mexico just like Trump

3 years ago

We care!

It’s the media that doesn’t care. They ignore, or de-emphasize the problem. We are a voter-based Democracy. This should be the number one issue for our stability!!! Russia hacked the election in more than half of the Country!!

The entire mess is sickening. Republicans are fascists. They want a dictatorship, not a free country. They must be purged from our Country’s elections. In the same way Nazis are gone from Germany.

Otherwise our Country will fall like Germany did. Trump is no leader. All he does is try to one-up whatever any one else did, without reasoning why the actions were taken. He’s dangerous because of this.

We need paper ballots with a copy as a receipt. Computerized systems are too open to meddling and corruption.

Virginia Martin
Virginia Martin
3 years ago
Reply to  Mik

No receipts. A receipt opens up the possibility of vote buying, or intimidation of the vulnerable. Employees, e.g., could be required to vote and then to prove how they voted, which a receipt would enable.

3 years ago

In a free country, we can vote for whomever we want. Receipts are vital. They allow a check of whether the ballot counting is safe or corrupt.

Virginia Martin
Virginia Martin
3 years ago
Reply to  Mik

Of course we can vote for whomever we want. But we don’t need receipts, which enable coercion of the vulnerable or those who would sell their votes. We need good hand-counted audits of hand-marked ballots, done in public, with full transparency, following an air-tight chain of custody of the ballots. In Columbia County, NY we count nearly 100% of the ballots in full public view. It isn’t that hard, it doesn’t take that long, and it doesn’t cost that much. It satisfies everyone–voters, losing candidates, losing parties–that our results are accurate.

3 years ago

I defer to your wisdom. Thank you!

3 years ago
Reply to  Mik

No, we are a Republic. That’s why we have the Electoral College. And when you say “Russia hacked the election……”, you lose all credibility.

3 years ago
Reply to  Kathy

Democratic Republic. What’evs.

Russia hacked election machines in what 26 states???? That’s half the country. You don’t know how deep, so don’t claim that you do, through inference. Russian hackers fooled banks into thinking their accounting showed safety, but they were syphoning off millions of dollars. They also hacked into our electrical grid. Could just as easily have been messing with votes.

The fact that they are doing this should have the entire United States up in arms, so to speak. Russia needs to be shown what our cyberwarfare can do, and it needs to be daunting. If Trump is in anyway linked to the Russian mob, he needs to be booted from office immediately.

f frederick skitty
f frederick skitty
3 years ago

Here’s all you need to know…
the ‘Russia connection’ is about organized crime, not elections.
google ‘Semion Mogilevich’ for details.
as to the election fraud angle…
‘blackboxvoting’ for an eye-opening education on that subject.
This information has been available for YEARS, folks.
Mueller won’t touch either one of these white hot subjects.
As former head of the FBI, Mueller was appointed ‘special counsel’ because he knows what NOT to touch.
a ‘special counsel’, indeed.
Another warren commission-style whitewash is in the works – expect to see one or two Oswald stand-ins abandoned to their legal fate (or murdered) while the MIC gravy train continues to roll.
Mueller will officially declare Trump naive and therefore blameless.
is anyone paying attention?

3 years ago

I hope you’re wrong, but I don’t trust Meuller much either. IE: 9/11 bs. However, maybe he will seek redemption, and just do the right thing this time. Time will tell.

3 years ago

Good article, but it seems to conflate hand-marked paper ballots and computer-marked paper tapes that are printed as the voter votes. The paper tapes are not comparable to hand-marked paper ballots. This is true because: (1) nearly 90% of all voters don’t verify what is printed on them, (2) efforts to use this tape record to verify electronically calculated election outcomes are thwarted by tapes that jam for hours and by the complexity of reading every line of the tapes in order to find records related to a specific election, and (3) the tapes are very easily hacked (e.g. the program waits a few seconds after the voter presses the “Verify Vote” button and then cancels the vote on the tape and quickly prints a new “vote” record). The starting point for a system-independent record for effective auditing of election results is a hand-marked paper ballot.

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