Science & Nature

U.S. voting systems may be complex, but are they secure?

U.S. voting systems may be complex, but are they secure? thumbnail

Former President Donald Trump and his allies have driven a relentless campaign against what they describe as fraudulent voting equipment since his loss in the 2020 election. After nearly two years, no evidence has emerged that voting machines were manipulated to steal the election or that there was any widespread fraud.

Election theories continue to spread online and in forums across the country undermining public confidence in voting machines and election results, while leading some counties to consider ditching the equipment in favor of hand-marked and hand-counted ballots.

Elections have been held across the country this year during a busy primary season. While programming errors sometimes occur and equipment can malfunction, no major problems have been reported. Voting equipment is tested before and after to identify any problems, while audits done after the election confirm it worked correctly.

Voting technology in the U.S.

The types of voting equipment used throughout the United States varies by location. For in-person voting, most people fill out ballots by hand, and those ballots are inserted into an electronic tabulator. In many cases, this happens at the polling location. Elsewhere, the ballots are collected in a secured box, with rules governing the chain of custody, and taken to an election office for electronic tabulation.

In some places, a specialized computer is used by voters to mark their ballots electronically. Those ballots are printed, reviewed by the voter for accuracy, and then inserted into a tabulator at their polling location. A lawsuit in Georgia is challenging the use of these “ballot-marking” machines because they use bar codes to record votes.

Mailed ballots also are counted by tabulators at a local election office. A small number of jurisdictions, mostly small towns in New England, don’t use tabulators and count their ballots by hand.

How has this changed over the years?

After the “hanging chad” chaos of the 2000 election, Congress provided money for voting system upgrades. Many jurisdictions opted for electronic voting machines to replace their punch-card ballot systems. But those machines did not produce a paper record; instead, all votes were cast and recorded electronically.

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For years, election security experts raised concerns about these “direct-recording” machines and the potential for someone to tamper with them. A more secure method, they say, is a system that uses paper ballots and electronic tabulation with post-election reviews and tests to ensure the machines faithfully recorded voters’ choices.

Over the past decade, state and local governments began replacing their paperless machines, a process that accelerated after the 2016 election and revelations that Russia had scanned U.S. voting systems looking for vulnerabilities. Today, paperless machines are used only in Louisiana and a small number of jurisdictions in Indiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas, according to Verified Voting, a group that tracks voting technology in the U.S.

Claims made after the 2020 election

In the weeks after the 2020 election, Mr. Trump and his allies made numerous unsupported claims about voting machines, including that their software was created in foreign countries and designed to flip votes for desired candidates: “With the turn of a dial or the change of a chip, you can press a button for Trump and it goes to Biden,” Mr. Trump said in a Dec. 2 speech.

These claims have largely centered on Dominion Voting Systems, one of a handful of companies that dominate the U.S. voting technology market. In response, Dominion has filed defamation lawsuits against conservative media companies and Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, saying “lies and misinformation have severely damaged our company and diminished the credibility of U.S. elections.”

But rather than dissipate, conspiracies surrounding voting machines have only grown. Trump allies have been traveling the country to speak at conferences and with community groups, armed with algorithms and charts purporting to show machines have somehow been rigged.

Election technology expert Kevin Skoglund said part of the challenge is that voting systems are complex. It’s understandable that some people would be persuaded that something nefarious happened when it did not.

“If you are a person who is not technical, if someone is telling you the machines are cheating you, you might believe it because you don’t understand how the systems work,” Mr. Skoglund said.

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Are voting systems secure?

Any device run by software – a cellphone, a laptop, or voting system – is vulnerable to hacking. That’s why election experts have been pressing for the replacement of paperless voting machines.

Experts say the U.S. has taken steps to improve election security in recent years. That includes designating U.S. voting systems in 2017 as “critical infrastructure” – on par with the nation’s banks, dams, and nuclear power plants.

Congress has sent nearly $900 million in election security funding to states, which has been used to replace outdated voting systems, hire cybersecurity staff, and beef up cybersecurity defenses.

“There is no such thing as an invulnerable system,” said Larry Norden, an election security expert at the Brennan Center for Justice. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do better. We should always be looking at how we can do better, but you can’t eliminate risk.”

False claims fuel doubt and security concerns

The false claims have not only undermined public confidence in elections. They also have led to security breaches at some local election offices in Colorado, Georgia, and Michigan.

Soon after the 2020 election, Trump allies seized on a programming error in a Michigan county and, through the courts, gained legal access to its voting system. But a copy of the county’s election management system was made available at an August 2021 event hosted by a Trump ally, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, according to attendees.

Also released at that event was a copy of the system used in Mesa County, Colorado. Details have surfaced recently of another suspected breach – in Coffee County, Georgia in January 2021 as Trump allies sought ways to overturn the result of the presidential election. And Michigan authorities are investigating after voting equipment in a handful of counties was made accessible to unauthorized people.

Those developments have prompted concerns that rogue election workers sympathetic to conspiracies might use their access to election equipment and the knowledge to launch an attack from within. A poll worker in Michigan was recently charged with inserting a personal thumb drive into an electronic pollbook during the state’s primary, while authorities in Colorado are investigating a case in which a voter is suspected of tampering with a voting machine earlier this year.

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Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters Monday that threats to the security of elections have never been more complex – citing misinformation, the insider threats, and harassment of election workers.

The ‘most secure’ election

After the 2020 presidential election, a coalition of federal cybersecurity and election officials along with state election officials and representatives from voting machine companies issued a statement calling it the “most secure in American history.”

The group said there was “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

This was due largely to paper records being available for an estimated 93% of all ballots cast and a system of post-election checks to test the accuracy of the electronic tabulators. In Georgia, the presidential vote was counted three times – once entirely by hand – and each tally affirmed President Joe Biden’s win in the state.

“It doesn’t matter what happens in the machine,” said Mr. Norden, of the Brennan Center. “We have a piece of paper that tells us whether votes were recorded accurately.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP technology writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

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