Clunky doesn't mean good.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hacking Isn't the Voting System's Biggest Problem

Elaine Ou is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access, a financial technology company in San Francisco. Previously she was a lecturer in the electrical and information engineering department at the University of Sydney.
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Donald Trump keeps saying that the U.S. presidential election is rigged. Unlikely as this is, the perception of a hacked vote may be more dangerous than the reality.

Last week, a Homeland Security Department official revealed that hackers had been poking around in the voter registration systems of more than 20 states. An earlier FBI memo disclosed ongoing investigations of breaches involving voter databases in Arizona and Illinois. All this suggests that hackers may be searching for a way to access election management systems -- computers that run the software to create ballots and tabulate votes.

At the Intelligence and National Security Summit last month, FBI Director James Comey reassured the audience of­ the integrity of the country’s electoral system: “The beauty of the American voting system is that it’s diverse among the 50 states and it’s clunky as heck.” Clunky is rarely a confidence-inspiring term. A Ford Pinto is also clunky as heck. It’s certainly insulated from internet hackers, but many other things can go wrong as a result of its clunkiness.

True, the national ballot-counting system is decentralized, and thus holds up fairly well against large-scale fraud. Votes are isolated by precinct, with tabulation performed at individual polling locations. When the polls close, the local election board adds up the totals from each precinct, then submits their official results to the state for review, tabulation, and certification. It’s not as slick as an Excel spreadsheet, but the separation of authority limits the damage that can be done by a rogue election worker.

Decades of underfunding have left an assortment of voting machines that look like they belong in a computer history museum. The diversity complicates any widespread attack, but also makes it difficult to effect national security standards for polling places. In some precincts, ballot results are signed, sealed, and physically delivered to the local election board. In other precincts, results are submitted from a laptop with an internet connection. The two systems require very different types of protection.

A greater danger may be a more focused attack. Rigging all 50 states is a waste of money and increases the likelihood of getting caught. What if a hacker could get the job done with a few key counties in big battleground states such as Florida and Pennsylvania? As John F. Kennedy put it when accused of using his father’s wealth to bribe voters: “I just received the following wire from my generous daddy -- ‘Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’”

Polling places in Florida and Pennsylvania use either paper ballots or electronic voting systems. The former are optically scanned and tabulated by a computer, allowing for corroboration by recounting the ballots. The latter directly record votes through a touch screen, leaving no paper trail that can later be used to verify the results . The paperless systems comprise 52 percent of polling places in Florida and 93 percent in Pennsylvania .

To be sure, the lack of auditing doesn't mean a system is easily infiltrated. Thousands of paperless voting machines are spread out among hundreds of polling places in the largest battleground counties. While we shouldn’t underestimate the ingenuity of hackers , stealing the election would be a daunting task.

The bigger issue may be that so many voters already believe the system is rigged. The losing party will inevitably cry foul, and the lack of evidence from paperless systems will make any conspiracy theory automatically irrefutable. Although past studies have found little evidence of fraud, current voting technology can’t be trusted to produce accurate results even without interference. All of which increases the chances that any recount battle will drag the election well past November.

  1. While some direct recording systems support a paper audit log, the polling places in Florida and Pennsylvania do not.

  2. Florida uses paperless direct recording systems in 25 counties consisting of 3056 precincts. Florida has a total of 5915 precincts. Pennsylvania uses paperless direct recording systems in 54 counties, consisting of 8497 out of 9177 total precincts.

  3. Security vulnerabilities for electronic voting systems are well documented. Here is the voting machine used in Florida, here is the one of the machines used in Pennsylvania, here is an overview of all voting machines that points out which ones can be hacked remotely.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Elaine Ou at elaine@globalfinancialaccess.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net