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Hackable Electronic Voting

August 12, 2016

Donald Trump complains that the presidential election will be “rigged.” Trump also complained that the Republican nomination process was “rigged,” until he won the nomination, after which the nomination process was fully fair. In Trump-world, a contest is “rigged” if there’s any chance that Trump won’t win.

It’s been widely observed, not least by President Obama, that state and local control of voting means that a presidential election really can’t be rigged except by a broad conspiracy of state and local officials. But in our electronic age, a presidential election can be hacked. That makes it ironic that it’s Trump who’s bringing the subject up – Trump, after all, is the one who invited Russian intelligence agencies to hack U.S. State Department e-mail.

FBI investigators are nearly certain that Russian spies hacked the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and apparently other Democratic party organizations. The success and clear partisanship of Russian cyberspying, especially in the context of Trump’s peculiar affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, implies that the Russian government has taken an unusually strong interest in the outcome of our presidential election and is willing to intervene to influence the outcome.

Computers get involved in voting in two different ways: vote casting and vote counting. Computerized vote casting is called “direct recording electronic voting,” or DRE voting. In DRE voting, the voter uses a computer to cast her vote. In the United States, DRE voting is most commonly done at the election precinct, but in some cases DRE voting is done remotely, via internet. DRE voting in many cases comes with parallel paper documentation of the vote, but all too often DRE voting systems create no paper trail.

Vote counting is always computerized where the vote casting is computerized. But even where the vote is cast on paper, votes may be counted by computer – in my precinct, for instance, I fill out a scannable ballot which I then hand in for electronic scanning. The vote count is calculated from the scanned ballots, although the paper ballots remain available for audit.

Computerized vote casting and vote counting are not hackable per se – that is, a stand-alone computer that isn’t connected to the internet isn’t accessible to internet hackers, although it is vulnerable to on-site tampering by direct physical contact with the computer.

To the extent, if at all, that computerized vote tabulations are communicated from precincts to the governing boards of elections by telephone or by hand delivery, those communications are not vulnerable to internet hacking. In that scenario, computerized voting operates largely the same as vote counting operated in the age of the old voting lever machines – election precinct workers wrote down the vote totals from each machine in the precinct, and, in the case of New York City, police officers took those paper records and personally delivered them to election officials. Typically, partisan “poll watchers” would look over the precinct workers’ shoulders and note the machine totals, calling them in to their election headquarters.

But I suspect that most if not all computerized vote tabulations are communicated from precincts to boards of elections by the internet – which subjects that communication to the possibility of remote interference.

In any event, however precinct vote totals are conveyed to the central election authority, it’s a safe bet that most if not all American jurisdictions enter those precinct vote totals into computer databases – the days of the chalkboard vote tabulations are gone. Once those centralized vote totals are computerized, they are vulnerable to internet hacking unless the computers are stand-alone, without internet connections.

The full scope of the vulnerability of electronic voting to internet hacking isn’t publicly known. But public information does include some pretty scary possibilities – Georgia and Ohio, for instance.

Georgia uses touch screen computers for early voting and election day voting. (Scannable paper ballots are used for absentee voting.) And Georgia is one of five states where DRE voting generates no auditable paper trail – the others being Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey, and South Carolina. In seven other states – Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia – some but not all counties use DRE voting with no paper trail.

What’s worse, Georgia’s computerized voting system operates on Windows 2000, which went “end-of-life” in 2010. In other words, Microsoft stopped creating patches for security vulnerabilities six years ago, leaving Georgia’s voting system spectacularly vulnerable to well funded, well motivated hackers like Russian government cyberspies.

Georgia has not been seriously contested in any presidential race since 1996, when Bob Dole beat Bill Clinton there by less than two percent of the vote. But Trump has offended enough voters that Georgia is again in play: FiveThirtyEight.com’s “now-cast” has Hillary Clinton ahead of Trump by three tenths of a percent.

The truth is, if Georgia is in play then the overall election outcome is not in serious doubt. Vulnerability in Ohio is more critical, because no Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and Hillary Clinton is leading Trump there. Ohio uses Diebold voting machines, which were shown in 2005 and 2006 to be so easily hacked that Diebold renamed its system Premier Election Solutions to remove its tainted name as a marketing problem. Fortunately, Ohio’s DRE voting system leaves an auditable paper trail.

Although national and state polls show Clinton well ahead of Trump, with a probability of victory at about seven to one, Trump’s erratic nature, his bullying bigotry, his utter lack of governmental experience, and his astonishing ignorance of and disinterest in policy and facts make the stakes in this election even higher than usual for an American presidential election. The growth in international hacking, and the manifest interest of the Russian authoritarians in manipulating this election, make this election unusually vulnerable to outside influence, a.k.a. foreign hacking.

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