At Issue: Has Voting Machine Integrity Improved?

Researchers find machines can be hacked with just a few dollars’ worth of parts, renewing old worries about system security.

by / October 24, 2011

Editor’s Note: Digital Communities is starting a new weekly feature called “At Issue” that will explore in depth a hot topic in the news concerning technology that’s important to cities and counties. If you would like to suggest a future topic or share your opinion, e-mail Wayne Hanson, editorial director of Digital Communities, at

Last month, Argonne National Laboratory's Vulnerability Assessment Team hacked a common type of electronic voting machine using a few dollars’ worth of parts. The “man in the middle” attack hijacked communications between the voting machine's computer and the user interface, enabling a person to remotely control voting results. (Watch these videos and see how it’s done.) As a result, say the researchers, voting machines must be physically inspected for the presence of "alien electronics" to guard against such an attack.

This news resurrected old worries about electronic voting machine integrity that many believed were put to rest a few years ago For example, in a September 2008 video interview with Government Technology magazine, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen discussed her top-to-bottom review of the state's voting systems: "There was no way we could guarantee that existing equipment in the field had not already been compromised, and we could not prevent compromises from affecting future elections, Bowen said." In addition, she said, there was no way to audit electronically stored votes of some electronic systems.

So Digital Communities recently asked Bowen and other officials involved in the voting process about the progress made the past few years to secure elections technology, and how confident they are that the country’s voters will have their intent carried securely to election-night results.

Bowen said that today's systems are much more trustworthy, with stricter security and reliability standards. "In California, we have the best of both worlds — a blend of electronic efficiency with the original back-up for reliable auditing,” Bowen wrote in an e-mail. “Most Californians vote on paper ballots that are optically scanned by high-speed machines. But for those who prefer a direct-recording electronic device for marking ballots — either because of a disability or a personal preference over paper — each California polling place offers that option too."

Kim Alexander, founder of the California Voter Foundation and a longtime observer of the state’s elections, agreed that the best systems use optical scanning. “It combines … the durability and auditability of a paper ballot with the speed and accuracy of computer counting.”

Alexander said the biggest problem with voting systems is their short shelf life. Two of the state’s biggest counties — Los Angeles and San Francisco -- are struggling to meet election requirements with existing equipment, Alexander said.

“It is not good enough to simply wait for the private sector to create the next generation of voting equipment that isn’t going to happen,” Alexander said. “It will take a major public investment to create the next generation of voting systems. And not the way HAVA [Help America Vote Act] did, putting the cart before the horse, doling out money on questionable equipment before there was any federal oversight in place."

Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation (VVF), works on the issue from a national perspective. Smith and VVF are on a mission — as she said — to safeguard elections in the digital age. Smith keeps tabs on each state’s voting systems and is an advocate of auditable backups on whatever type of system used. She is not an advocate of vote-by-mail, the way in which some states allow absentee voting. Oregon has moved completely to vote-by-mail, she said.

These “remote voting” ballots travel in the mail with no tracking or monitoring. And while Oregonians may trust the Postal Service, at least one bill in Congress aimed to put FedEx-style tracking on vote-by-mail ballots.

Coercion and privacy are also considerations. Voting at a polling station has the advantage of eliminating the possibility of someone looking over a person’s shoulder “and telling them how to vote ‘or else,’" in Smith’s words. And voting from home could be susceptible to payment for votes. But the big advantage of vote-by-mail is that it costs less, said Smith.

Finally, a Digital Communities reader from Nevada who works in law enforcement — requesting anonymity — weighed in on the issue. He said voting machines “must have some type of security software to make sure they can’t be readily hacked by outside means.” He suggested that non-networked machines that download voting information onto SIM-type chips appear to be more secure than networked ones. He agreed with Smith that vote-by-mail ballots needed some type of security tracking. He cited the “hanging chad” problem in Florida’s 2000 election mess, and said that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”  Any perceived problem in voting accuracy, he said, would “set off a feeding frenzy by both political parties which could have dire consequences.”

Next week’s topic: SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems are becoming an important consideration for city and county officials who manage technology. To share your insight and opinion on this topic, please e-mail

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.