Pa­per­less ma­chines vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ers

Votes stored elec­tron­i­cally hard to check


AL­LEN­TOWN, PA. | Jill Stein’s bid to re­count votes in Penn­syl­va­nia was in trou­ble even be­fore a fed­eral judge shot it down Dec. 12. That’s be­cause the Green Party can­di­date’s ef­fort stood lit­tle chance of de­tect­ing po­ten­tial fraud or er­ror in the vote.

Why? There was ba­si­cally noth­ing to re­count.

Penn­syl­va­nia is one of 11 states where the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers use tra­di­tional ma­chines that store votes elec­tron­i­cally, without printed bal­lots or other pa­per-based back­ups that could be used to dou­ble-check the bal­lot­ing. There’s al­most no way to know if they’ve ac­cu­rately recorded in­di­vid­ual votes — or if any­one tam­pered with the count.

More than 80 per­cent of Penn­syl­va­ni­ans who voted Nov. 8 cast their bal­lots on such ma­chines, ac­cord­ing to VotePA, a non­profit seek­ing their re­place­ment. VotePA’s Mary­beth Kuznik de­scribed the pro­posed re­count this way: “You go to the com­puter and you say, ‘OK, com­puter, you counted this a week-and-a-half ago. Were you right the first time?”’

These pa­per­less dig­i­tal vot­ing ma­chines, used by roughly 1 in 5 U.S. vot­ers last month, present one of the most glar­ing dan­gers to the se­cu­rity of the rick­ety, un­der­funded U.S. elec­tion sys­tem. Like many elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines, they are vul­ner­a­ble to hack­ing. But other ma­chines typ­i­cally leave a pa­per trail that could be man­u­ally checked. The pa­per­less dig­i­tal ma­chines open the door to po­ten­tial elec­tion rig­ging that might not ever be de­tected.

Their preva­lence also mag­ni­fies other risks in the elec­tion sys­tem, sim­ply be­cause er­ror or fraud is harder to catch when vote counts can’t be ver­i­fied. And like other vot­ing ma­chines adopted since the 2000 elec­tion, the pa­per­less sys­tems are near­ing the end of their use­ful life — yet there is no com­pre­hen­sive plan to re­place them.

“If I were go­ing to hack this elec­tion, I would go for the pa­per­less ma­chines be­cause they are so hard to check,” said Bar­bara Simons, the co-au­thor of “Bro­ken Bal­lots,” a study of flawed U.S. vot­ing tech­nol­ogy.

Ms. Stein de­scribed her re­count ef­fort as a way to en­sure that the 2016 elec­tion wasn’t tainted by hack­ing or fraud. There’s no ev­i­dence of ei­ther so far — a fact fed­eral judge Paul Di­a­mond cited promi­nently in his de­ci­sion halt­ing the Penn­syl­va­nia re­count.

Ms. Stein pur­sued sim­i­lar re­counts in Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan, to lit­tle avail. Those states use more re­li­able pa­per­based vot­ing tech­nolo­gies. (The Elec­toral Col­lege cer­ti­fied Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial vic­tory last week.)

But a cadre of com­puter sci­en­tists from ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties backed Ms. Stein’s re­counts to un­der­score the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of U.S. elec­tion sys­tems. These re­searchers have suc­cess­fully hacked evot­ing ma­chines for more than a decade in tests com­mis­sioned by New York, Cal­i­for­nia, Ohio and other states.

Ms. Stein and her wit­nesses said wor­ries about fraud were jus­ti­fied given U.S. charges that Russia med­dled in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Emails of top Democrats were hacked and leaked. Over the sum­mer, hack­ers also tried to breach the voter reg­is­tra­tion data­bases of Ari­zona and Illi­nois us­ing Russia-based servers, U.S. of­fi­cials said. Elec­tion net­works in at least 20 states were probed for vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

“It’s a tar­get-rich en­vi­ron­ment,” said Rice Univer­sity com­puter sci­en­tist Dan Wal­lach. Re­searchers would like to see the U.S. move en­tirely to com­put­er­scannable pa­per bal­lots, be­cause pa­per can’t be hacked.

The U.S. vot­ing sys­tem — a loosely reg­u­lated, lo­cally man­aged patch­work of more than 3,000 ju­ris­dic­tions over­seen by the states — em­ploys more than two dozen types of ma­chin­ery from 15 man­u­fac­tur­ers. Elec­tions of­fi­cials across the na­tion say they take great care to se­cure their ma­chines from tam­per­ing. They are locked away when not in use and sealed to pre­vent tam­per­ing.

All of that makes na­tional elec­tions very dif­fi­cult to steal without get­ting caught.

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