Do electronic voting machines put 2016 election at risk?

Authorities are worried about hackers undermining the integrity of the US elections in November. Some votes are more secure than others.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
In this Nov. 4, 2008 file photo, voters line up to cast their ballots in the Harlem neighborhood of New York.

Soon after the 2000 presidential elections went to a recount, Americans got acquainted with an exotic new vocabulary – hanging chads and butterfly ballots – and what lawmakers saw as a modern solution to the nightmare of punchcard voting systems: electronic voting machines.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, pouring nearly $3 billion into an effort to get states to adopt those machines.

More than a decade and a half later, those same electronic machines are still around in many states. And the system arising from the 2002 congressional fix is now at the heart of growing concerns over the integrity of this year’s elections, with cybersecurity experts suggesting that it is an easy target for hackers. Federal authorities are beginning to get involved. But the best insurance for election integrity – a system that uses paper to back up electronic results – may require new federal funding.

Not all of the country is on equally precarious footing. Partly because of bad experiences with glitches in electronic voting machines, some localities have been shifting in recent years toward paper-backed systems.

In 2012, a report by the Verified Voting Foundation, Rutgers School of Law, and Common Cause Education Fund showed that 22 states had paper-based voting systems and conducted audits

Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation, told The Washington Post this week that 35 states, accounting for about three-fourths of US voters, now have machines that leave a paper trail. 

"When you have voters marking a physical ballot, it's pretty easy to check – and it's obvious what's being counted,” she said. “Those physical records of voter intent can be used for a post-election audit to check the software on a system counting the votes…. It lets election officials use that record to demonstrate that the count was correct."

But the Verified Voting Foundation says five states – N.J., Delaware, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina – don't have a paper trail to back up electronic voting. 

Fears over tampering have been heightened by the breaching of voter databases in Illinois and Arizona, which US intelligence officials attribute to Russia-based hackers. As many as 200,000 voter records are believed to have been accessed in Illinois, according to NBC. In letters and intra-agency memos, lawmakers and intelligence analysts have expressed concern that the Kremlin could foment public distrust of the election results.

In response, the White House has ordered a classified review of the matter, and other agencies are taking measures to step up cybersecurity. The Department of Homeland Security has offered states assistance with securing voting processes, according to StateScoop, and the US Election Assistance Commission, which helps states facilitate voting, is also set to discuss cybersecurity procedures with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in September.

But the official response is complicated by the fact that there exists no federal body tasked with overseeing the execution of election-day voting, as Politico notes. Instead, states manage their own voting processes, resulting in a national patchwork in which more than a dozen states have no plan for a post-election audit, according to Wired.

Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, told the site that funding for a nationwide upgrade simply wasn’t available.

“We interviewed election officials who told us what they were hearing from their state legislators and others who would be funding this type of equipment, and they say come back to us after there’s some kind of crisis,” he said.

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