In the News

November 7, 2016

How vulnerable are the nation’s electronic voting machines?

By Katherine Li Smith

Ph.D. student Tyler Kaczmarek's past research reveals that the heterogeneous nature of the American voting system helps safeguard it from fraudulent attacks.

Earlier this year, CNN Money wrote, “We’ve officially entered the era of the hackable election.” This was a consequence of the email scandal that marred the Democratic National Convention in July.

With widespread and conspiratorial talk of rigged elections, it isn’t surprising that many voters are weary about casting their ballots on electronic voting machines. The fact that we still rely on these machines for voting in an age of cyber warfare makes the stakes even higher.

Yet, electronic voting machines have continued to gain popularity ever since the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. At the time, allegations were raised that a large portion of voters in Palm Beach, Fla. had unintentionally cast a ballot for Reform party candidate Pat Buchanan, instead of Gore, due to the confusing nature of the paper butterfly ballot in use. This led to the infamous, yet uneventful, Florida recount.

A move toward electronic machines has since helped to simplify the process for voters and limit the possibility for human error. Electronic machines, however, can still be hacked without leaving evidence of tampering. For example, in 2010, researchers from the University of Michigan and Princeton University purchased a used Sequoia AVC Edge touchscreen voting machine with intact tamper seals. Ultimately, the researchers were easily able to install a game of Pac-Man on the machine by simply reformatting the memory card to boot DOS, bypassing the tamper seals.

Even with known vulnerabilities, however, voters do not need to worry about large-scale rigging this coming Tuesday. Why is that? Simply put: the system is too big to fail.

“Something that people criticize as a weakness of our election system is actually one of its biggest strengths in regards to rigging,” said Tyler Kaczmarek, a fourth-year Ph.D. student with the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), who is currently working in applied cryptography under Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science Gene Tsudik.

He is referring to the large and varying nature of election districts. During his past work on the development and deployment of an accessible, coercion-resistant voting machine, Kaczmarek discovered that the heterogeneous nature of the American voting system helps to safeguard it from fraudulent attacks.

There are nearly 8,000 jurisdictions that administer elections in the United States and each one uses a different method for collecting votes. A large variety of electronic voting equipment is available to states, including optical scan paper ballot systems, direct recording electronic (DRE) systems, ballot marking devices and systems, and punch-card voting systems.

In Texas, for instance, voters may use a DRE system without a printer, while in California voters will use a different DRE system with a printer, which provides a paper trail to confirm the computer’s memory of who voted for what (think the paper receipt that prints out behind a plastic, tamper-proof cover that a voter must approve before officially casting her vote). Additionally, many jurisdictions still exclusively use paper ballots that will be manually counted at the polling place, as well as absentee and provisional voting paper ballots. All of this varies from state to state and even county to county.

All of this might seem confusing, but that’s the point. Even if a machine like the Sequoia AVC Edge can be individually hacked by simply removing the memory card, it would take a massive number of state actors, all with the exact same malicious intent, to physically be present at each polling place in order to affect the outcome of an election as large scale as the presidency.

“Since not everyone uses the same machines, and the machines aren’t connected to the Internet, the same vulnerability can’t multiply, “said Kaczmarek. If some voters were worried about hackers, say of the Russian variety, interfering in the presidential election they need not worry.

City and county elections are far more vulnerable to these types of in-person attacks since, hypothetically, it would take only one or two hacked machines to drastically change the outcome of a local race.

While new and improved voting machines continue to hit the market, voters should not expect to see older machines, some as timeworn as a decade or more, gone tomorrow. “They are incredibly expensive,” said Kaczmarek. “And not at the top of a fiscal year spending list for most states as they only get infrequent use.”

Voters weary of electronic machines have a simple answer: the paper ballot. It’s how Kaczmarek himself voted—early and by mail—this year. Luddites be warned: Nearly all paper ballots are tallied using electronic equipment. While a few low-population areas, such as certain smaller jurisdictions in Wisconsin, still rely on hand counts, they are the exception.

In the 2016 election and beyond, the electronic machines are here to stay for better or worse (but mostly for the better).

Tyler Kaczmarek is available for media inquiries and can be reached at tkaczmar at
How vulnerable are the nation’s electronic voting machines?

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