Hackers and Voting Machines


A number of readers have asked for a perspective on the news story about a Las Vegas conference where hackers were able to easily break in to 30 voting machines. First of all, despite the sensational headlines, the successful hacking should be no surprise. I wrote about this more than a year ago in Election Attitude. Others knew of the vulnerability way before that. In 2015, The Brennan Center for Justice published a detailed report on what the Presidential Commission on Election Administration described as an “impending crisis … from the widespread wearing out of voting machines purchased a decade ago”.

Most of the voting machines in America are 10+ years old. Some use proprietary firmware only known to the original manufacturer. Most of the companies that made voting machines back then are out of business. Most voting machines contain a computer which uses Microsoft Windows. Most use Windows XP which has had no new security updates or patches since 2014. If a security exposure is detected, Microsoft no longer provides support. Some states have voting machines running on Windows 2000 which has not been supported since 2010.

The challenge for hackers is trivial. They were invited to the conference, and the organizers obtained 30 machines from voting precincts made by different vendors, and gave the hackers freedom to do as they pleased. It was like having a bag of keys on the welcome mat at your front door and letting someone try them until they found the one which works. The outcome of the conference is a good thing, because it highlights the need for action.

The worse news is the voting machines are falling apart. Spare parts are difficult if not impossible to find. Laws prohibit throwing broken machines away, so voting officials have to pay to keep them in storage. The good news is despite the deplorable condition of the machines, the likelihood of hackers rigging an election, as some of the headlines suggest, is infinitesimal. Voting takes place at more than 100,000 voting jurisdictions. The machines are not connected to the Internet. To rig one jurisdiction would require collusion among multiple election workers to provide access to the machines before the election started and when nobody would notice strangers tampering with the machines. The hackers would need to have a technical plan to re-program multiple machines so that if someone voted for X, the machine would count it as a vote for Y. To swing a large county or state would be next to impossible.

The Federal Government provided funding for new voting machines in 2002 after the Florida hanging chad disaster, but did not provide funding to maintain or replace them when they became out dated.  Unfortunately, the machines are at the end of their life cycle, in fact at a crisis. One alternative to resolve the problem is to patch the existing system of antiquated machines. Another alternative is to embrace an election attitude. Even new machines will not solve the problem of the 100,000,000 who could have voted but did not. 

An election attitude offers a practical approach to voting. A key component of the new attitude is Internet voting using blockchain technology. It uses mobile devices and the Internet to enable citizens to vote from the comfort and privacy of their home or at a local library. Though the risks are real and cannot be ignored, they can be solved, and there are numerous benefits to adopting Internet voting. With Internet voting it can replicate successful web services such as Amazon which is used by millions of people daily. If voting online could reach the level of adoption of e-commerce, it would be possible for voter participation to increase significantly. With a changed focus, increased funding, changes in election registration and security, and increased access for people with special needs, I believe the voter participation rate would be improved dramatically and lead to a stronger democracy. Despite the complexities, it is possible to have private, secure, accurate, and verifiable electronic voting. While we are at it, lets get rid of Tuesday voting and allow weekend voting, like France, which had more than 50% higher participation than the U.S.

Read about the conference at Hackers breach dozens of voting machines brought to conference and read more about voting machines and Internet voting in Election Attitude – How Internet Voting Leads to a Stronger Democracy.

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