Elections Politics

Hacking the election: How experts view electronic voting

2004 election results via Diegofrieden.
Written by Alexander McEvoy

In 1975, Microsoft was founded, Sony released the first version of the Betamax and the first truly electronic voting machine was introduced into an official election in northeastern Illinois.

The Video Voter, created by Frank Thornber Company in Chicago, was used for a short five years, but it was the first of a new class of voting machines. The Video Voter was the predecessor of a type of computer called direct-record electronic, or DRE voting machines.This new voting method lead to faster, more efficient voting and increased accessibility options for disabled citizens.

Over 40 years later, some say the DREs have opened up the United States electoral process to disruption, and others say their damage has already been done.

The 2004 presidential election pit incumbent George W. Bush against John Kerry, the senior senator from Massachusetts. A Republican has never won the presidency without carrying Ohio, and 2004 was no different. Bush carried the state with a margin of 2.11 percent and secured the 270 electoral votes for his re-election.

We watched the election in 2004 very closely, and I have the sense that it was stolen, by the means we call ‘strip and flip,’” said Harvey Wasserman, an author and political advocate from Columbus. “By stripping, they strip the voter rolls of people who they think will vote democratic. This is almost all black and hispanics. By electronic means, they flip the outcome.

“They can make the outcome pretty much whatever they want.”

Specifically calling out Ohio’s Republican leadership in 2004, Wasserman put the blame at the feet of Bob Taft and Kenneth Blackwell, the governor and secretary of state at the time, respectively. He pointed to exit polls as the proof of his claims.

“The gold standard are the exit polls and when the official outcome varies significantly from the exit polls then you have a pretty good idea that the election is being stolen,” Wasserman said.

Chris Jackson, the vice president of public affairs at the polling company Ipsos, is more skeptical of exit polling data.

“They’re polls. They’re susceptible to survey error like any other kind of surveys,” Jackson said. “More likely than not, if the exit poll doesn’t match up with the final result, it’s the exit poll that’s in error.”

Wasserman’s skepticism of the electoral process didn’t end in 2004. When discussing this year’s U.S. Senate race, Wasserman pushed that his belief that it will be “rigged.” He pointed to voting machines produced by private corporations with closed-source code as areas of concern.  

Matthew Bernhard, a Ph.D. candidate studying cybersecurity and electronic voting at the University of Michigan, expressed concerns over electronic voting as well.

“The dangers are always that precincts that use electronic machines don’t have a physical record of evidence in case something goes wrong,” Bernhard said.

Bernhard insisted there has been no evidence of vote total manipulation in the past and that it would be hard to prove it if it did happen. He explained that it would be hard for anyone to manipulate vote totals without being noticed and instead offered a different take on how someone might influence the election.

“If I were an attacker, I probably wouldn’t be too concerned with manipulating the vote totals,” he said. “In fact, I would be concerned with making them look like they were manipulated.”

Bernhard said the erosion of public trust was a much more effective and easier avenue of attack.

The actual act of attacking a voting machine wouldn’t be difficult according to Bernhard, who said he and his team in Michigan were able to deploy a virus on a voting machine’s memory card that would then infect the rest of a precinct’s memory cards in the tabulation machine.  

Even with the hacking of voting machines being not far out of reach by a trained hacker, Bernhard insisted it wouldn’t have much effect outside of a jurisdiction if it was done.  

The Secretary of State’s office insisted on the security of Ohio’s voting machines.

“Electronic equipment, along with all other voting equipment, is tested extensively by the election assistance commission on the federal level,” said spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office Joshua Eck. “Then it’s certified by our office.”

Eck explicitly pointed to the bipartisan partnerships that make up the election process from the county to the state level to ensure that Ohioans’ votes are counted.  

About the author

Alexander McEvoy

Alex is a reporter covering cybersecurity and technology. Alex is a junior studying political science and journalism. Email him at [email protected] and find him on twitter @AlexTheMcEvoy. PGP Key: CA63 4191 C935 6B0D 356C 5698 6CC1 C941 B93F A6BC

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