Democracy Alliance Blog / From The President / November 1, 2017

Election Hacking Strikes at the Heart of Democracy

by Gara LaMarche

Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee recently announced that they support the findings of the U.S. intelligence community — Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. elections by hacking election systems and manipulating social media.

This is not “fake news” or alarmism. The Department of Homeland Security notified 21 states recently that Russia probed or successfully attacked their electoral systems. The threat is bipartisan, since the disruption of elections can be used against both major political parties. All of the political arguments, tactics, and significant investments that progressives employ to win elections will amount to nothing if votes can be overturned by a hacker in Moscow or China or North Korea or Iran or anywhere else in the world. The ultimate form of voter suppression is for the voter finally to cast his or her ballot, only to have that ballot ignored or changed without the voter’s knowledge.

“Paper ballots in all states, combined with post-election ballot audits to check the tabulating computers, must be in place in time for the critical 2018 and 2020 elections. Otherwise, we risk the irreversible corruption of our democracy itself”

Almost all votes in the United States are counted by computer. Even keeping those machines off the internet (known as air gapping) doesn’t make the process hack-proof.  A voting machine is programmed for each new election, with new candidate names and locations on the ballot, using a computer that typically is connected to the internet at some time. If that computer is infected with election-rigging malware, it can infect the voting machine, just as the Stuxnet Virus successfully attacked and infected air-gapped Iranian centrifuges.

Pre-election testing of voting systems is not adequate – a sophisticated attack could have malware lie dormant during all pre-election tests, and then change votes on Election Day. An example of such software is the well-known Volkswagen diesel emissions software, which was designed to differentiate test mode from normal driving.

Finally, the secrecy of individual ballots – a core principle of our democratic system – makes it very difficult to detect computer-based fraud, since it is essentially impossible for a voter to determine if his or her ballot was correctly tabulated. (There are some crypto-based systems that provide ballot verification, but none is commercially available.)

That’s the bad news. The good news is it is not too late to protect our voting systems.
Votes should be cast using paper ballots — you can’t hack paper — that typically are tabulated by computer-based optical scan systems. In most elections, comparing a relatively small number of randomly chosen ballots with what the voting machine says will be sufficient to guard against election altering fraud.

Fortunately, Virginia, one of the states warned that its systems had been hacked, is making a change in time for its critical upcoming gubernatorial election.

Edgardo Cortés, Virginia’s Commissioner of Elections, told the Washington Post recently that all cities, towns and counties in the Commonwealth will use paper ballots and electronic scanners in the November 7 election. “The issue here is not whether it’s hackable or not,” Cortés said. “The issue is if you end up with some kind of question, you have those paper ballots you can go back to.”

As DA Partner Barbara Simons said recently, “Among the earliest and most vocal opponents of paperless voting were computer scientists, because we understand that you can’t trust computers, especially in a high-stakes situation like an election.” Simons and others started Verified Voting, whose board and advisory board is composed mainly of computer scientists and election officials, to press for paper ballots like those that will be used in next month’s Virginia election. (Find below links to learn more about Verified Voting and other progressive infrastructure groups doing important work on this issue.)

To appreciate the value of paper ballots, think about the 2008 election that sent Al Franken to the Senate. Franken won this extremely close election by 315 votes after a recount that was only possible because activists in the state had pushed for paper ballots along with a strong recount law.

Because of our federal system, some may think the dangers of hacking are diffused. But with the Electoral College system, most election outcomes depend on a handful of swing states. It’s all too possible to microtarget a handful of counties or precincts to sway a Presidential election. Despite Hillary Clinton’s significant popular vote margin, Donald Trump became President based on a plurality of only 70,000 votes across Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The hacking of votes isn’t the only threat to democracy in the digital age. Voter registration databases are also vulnerable. And social media appears to have played a major role in undermining Clinton’s candidacy. We’ve learned that Russia ran targeted Facebook ads in Michigan and Wisconsin and may have manipulated Google searches.

Given the growing and disturbing list of threats, progressives need to make protecting the electoral process from digital interference, domestic or foreign, a high priority goal. Paper ballots in all states, combined with post-election ballot audits to check the tabulating computers, must be in place in time for the critical 2018 and 2020 elections. Otherwise, we risk the irreversible corruption of our democracy itself.

Additional Resources from the DA Portfolio

  • The Center for American Progress has been tracking Russian interference in the election since immediately following the 2016 Election, and we featured CAP President Neera Tanden on a call in February to discuss exactly this issue. In August, CAP offered 9 solutions to securing America’s elections.

For more information on the types of machines used in states and counties around the country visit The Verifier, a unique election systems database run by Verified Voting.