Hack Early, Hack Often: The Perils of Electronic Voting

From touch-screen ballots to Internet elections, the idea of voting by computer is becoming less popular thanks to questions about the security of electronic voting systems.

By Joe Stanganelli | Posted Nov 4, 2014
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Today is Election Day in the United States. It is estimated that about 3 million Americans – more than 1% of the American voting public – will have voted online this election. Most of these voters are members of the armed forces stationed abroad, although many are regular citizens. And their voting choices might be for naught.

"The security and reliability issues [of online voting] are significant," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center, recently told USA Today.  "[It is] completely not ready for prime time."

The questionable security of electronic voting systems

The Department of Defense conducted a study of the security of electronic voting systems three years ago – and has kept the results of that study private, despite several official requests from activists, members of Congress, and the state of California.  Naturally, the federal government's secrecy has intensified concerns about the fidelity of electronic voting.

The criticisms are not mere rhetoric and theory, either. The computational maladies that have come with electronic voting have been numerous. Votes not getting counted. Extra votes getting counted. Votes getting multiplied (sometimes by a negative number!). Votes getting erased. Votes for Democrats turning into votes for Republicans. Votes for Republicans turning into votes for Democrats.

"Calibration errors," officials have termed blunders like these – but the problems are serious enough that several states have begun ditching electronic voting altogether. With paper ballots no longer as controversial as they were in the wake of the hanging chads that plagued the contentious US presidential election of 2000, federal funding for electronic voting has dried up for maintaining, updating, and replacing what are – in many cases – computers that are more than ten years old.  Additionally, money notwithstanding, experts have reportedly estimated that it takes upwards of two years to effectively train poll workers on new systems, but not all local governments have afforded their poll workers this luxury of time.

Hacking electronic voting systems

What's more, as with anything electronic or online these days, all of these systems are subject to hacking. (Indeed, a 2008 Emmy-nominated documentary was devoted to the woeful security of American e-voting systems.) Several actual hacks have been successfully perpetrated on electronic voting systems and Internet voting functionalities. University of Michigan researchers, for instance, demonstrated this year how Estonia's e-voting system – touted as the best in the world – could be completely spoiled by malware.

The dangers to the sanctity of the election process are no more marginal in America. Alaska, for instance, has rolled out an online voting process so maligned and fraught with potential vulnerabilities that the state has appended a broad legal disclaimer to its online ballots, acknowledging that an Alaskan online voter's e-ballot may be compromised.This is particularly disconcerting because of how close Alaska's Senate and gubernatorial races are running.

"Here's the thing," says Pamela Smith, president of non-profit advocacy group Verified Voting. "The margin of victory in the Alaska Senate race might be smaller than the number of votes returned over the Internet."

Are electronic voting systems worth it?

Some commentators criticize the major vendors of electronic voting machines and software for not making their code open-source. Combined with the fact that vendor-pushed software updates must undergo months-long government testing and certification processes, this "proprietization" has castrated government agencies and the public of any meaningful ability to audit electronic voting solutions. (Of course, open source can have its own security problems.)

And what is the reward for all of this cost? Earlier this year, an independent panel in Canada reported to British Columbia legislators: "[R]esearch suggests that Internet voting does not generally cause non-voters to vote. Instead, Internet voting is mostly used as a tool of convenience for individuals who have already decided to vote."

All of this is to say that the ROI with electronic voting – let alone online voting – is absentee.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Joe Stanganelli is a writer, attorney, and communications consultant. He is also principal and founding attorney of Beacon Hill Law in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.

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