Could the Election Be Hacked?

Renewed emphasis is being placed on vulnerabilities associated with voting machines.

by / March 31, 2016
Hacker activity affecting the vote count in a few key districts in a small subset of states could swing a tight election race in one direction or the other. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

With the surge in data breaches over the past several years, the prevailing wisdom is that no online data is completely safe from hackers. Banks, governments, insurance companies and small businesses globally have lost billions of dollars to cybercrime.

Last year, the top security breaches affected something more precious than personally identifiable information. Data breaches included the most intimate details and actions in life — with the loss of millions of records containing biometrics like fingerprints, career backgrounds, family relationships, secret liaisons, hospital records and much more.

Which leads to the big question that’s being asked with renewed fervor: Could the 2016 presidential election be disrupted, or somehow manipulated, via unauthorized computer hacking or denial of service attacks?

Related situations have come up several times in the past year. Concerns were raised following the Iowa caucuses in February after a new Microsoft vote-tallying app failed in certain parts of the state. The Des Moines Register reported these troubles: “Too many accounts have arisen of inconsistent counts, untrained and overwhelmed volunteers, confused voters, cramped precinct locations, a lack of voter registration forms and other problems.” Still, no hacker “foul play” was insinuated.

After the hanging chads from the Florida election in November 2000 and the dozens of nationwide contested elections over the past decade, no one wants to wake up to a huge cybermess that involves the word “hacking” on Nov. 9, 2016. Therefore, this election tampering issue has been raised by commentators from both ends of the political spectrum. The Huffington Post mentioned six ways hackers could disrupt an election, including hacking a voting machine, shutting down the voting system or election agencies, and deleting or changing election records.

Meanwhile, Fox News proclaimed that “ballot machines are easy targets.” Pointing to a report by the Commonwealth Security and Risk Management Directorate for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, experts recently insisted that old technology could impact election results.

A 2015 report from the Brennan Center for Justice said that in this year’s election, 43 states will use electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old and reaching the end of their expected lifespan. A member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission told the report’s authors, “We’re getting by with Band-Aids.”

So what efforts are being made to ensure a safe and reliable election count? In 2012, CountingVotes.org looked at election preparedness state-by-state. The answer is that every state has taken specific actions to ensure that public trust and integrity in the voting process is maintained.

The Verified Voter Foundation’s news service outlines these actions in the 50 states, including technology upgrades and process changes in each state. For example, in Michigan: “Secretary of State Ruth Johnson issued the following statement regarding the governor’s budget proposal announced today that calls for $10 million in state support to help local communities buy new election equipment: ‘I appreciate Gov. Snyder’s commitment to upgrading our state’s aging election equipment. I look forward to working with lawmakers now to win their support for this reasonable plan, and I encourage city and township leaders to offer their support as well.’”

Few experts are predicting widespread problems on Election Day 2016. And yet, hacker activity affecting the vote count in a few key districts in a small subset of states could swing a tight election race in one direction or the other.

The risk of election problems in 2016 should certainly get more attention as a result of aging technology and the growing breadth and depth of global cyberthreats. Nevertheless, state government election professionals have overcome difficult challenges in past years. Excellent teams in each state are working hard to ensure that this year will be no different.

The bottom line is we know there have been and will be hacker attempts to disrupt elections. We shall soon know if our people, process and technology can succeed again in 2016. I’m betting on the good guys.
 

Dan Lohrmann Contributing Writer

Building effective virtual government requires new ideas, innovative thinking and hard work. From cybersecurity to cloud computing to mobile devices, Dan discusses what’s hot and what works in the world of gov tech.