Many of us remember the vote-counting debacle of the 2000 election, when “dangling chads” — bits of paper left on punched card ballots, obscuring voters’ intentions — resulted in the Supreme Court having to break the Bush-Gore deadlock in Florida.
Two years later, Congress passed a law that, among other things, aimed to phase out the punch-card voting systems that had required millions of ballots to be invalidated.
In many cases, those dated machines were replaced with electronic voting systems. The intentions were good, but, as one expert put it, “the consequences were a technological train wreck.”
It turns out that the other extreme from punch-cards, voting that utilizes computers, while avoiding errant tiny pieces of paper, is singularly vulnerable to electronic tampering.
The FBI is now urging states to take steps to enhance the security of their computer systems before the November election. The Obama Administration has voiced concern, calling for additional oversight and security.
The threat isn’t theoretical. Russian hackers recently breached a voter registration system in Illinois and attempted unsuccessfully to do the same in Arizona. And Russian hackers are suspected to have also been behind the breach of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers, which exposed a questionable relationship between DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the Hillary Clinton campaign, resulting in the chairwoman’s resignation.
Fully electronic voting machines, soon to be used by an estimated 42 million Americans in more than a dozen states, are the biggest vulnerability. The machines are computers, and computers run on code, which can be manipulated by a hacker. Princeton University computer scientist Dr. Andrew Appel says that he was able to hack into one machine in under seven minutes.
It is true that only five states — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and New Jersey — use “direct recording electronic” (DRE) machines exclusively. Fully three-quarters of the country will vote on some form of paper ballot — and not punch cards — this fall. But many states use electronic machines in some capacity.
That isn’t a problem, if there is post-election auditing — comparing of marked and scanned paper ballots with electronically recorded results, to ensure accuracy. Many states, however, do not require polling stations to audit results.
The reason more secure voting machines, procedures and auditing of results aren’t universally in place in the United States is simply a lack of funds and will. There are new state-of-the-art voting machines available but only a handful of states and municipalities — Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and parts of Wisconsin among them — have upgraded in the past year.
A statement by 31 security experts at the international nonprofit Aspen Institute issued a public statement: “Our electoral process could be a target for reckless foreign governments and terrorist groups.” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson recently conceded the need for “longer-term investments… in the cybersecurity of our election process.”
Less sophisticated ballot tampering was for years something of a tradition in American politics. In 1932, Louisiana senator Huey Long was accused of rigging the vote on a number of amendments to his state’s constitution that were advantageous to his financial interests. In 1948, the country witnessed the infamous “Lyndon Landslide,” in which future president Lyndon Johnson mysteriously overcame a 20,000 vote deficit in his first Senate race, a wonder that historians maintain was almost certainly the result of vote rigging.
Recent years have seen a number of lawsuits charging jurisdictions with creating voting requirements aimed, the complainants assert, at making it hard or impossible for some members of various minorities to vote.
Over recent weeks, a federal appeals court struck down a North Carolina voting law, calling it an unconstitutional effort to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Another appeals court allowed Wisconsin’s voter identification law to stand, but only with assurances that its Division of Motor Vehicles would “mail automatically a free photo ID to anyone who comes to DMV one time and initiates the free ID process.”
And a federal judge blocked Texas from banning interpreters at polling places, contending the measure violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act. And in North Dakota, a federal judge blocked a state voter ID law, saying it infringed on the rights of Native Americans.
Concerns about restrictive voting laws are legitimate, and the courts are right to adjudicate them. But, at the same time, it would be foolhardy to ignore a much greater threat to the integrity of American elections. The time has come for cyber-rigging-proof voting machinery and the tightening of voting procedures, across the nation.