Securing the vote: How ‘paper’ can defend US elections from overseas invaders


When Logan Lamb visited the web site of Georgia’s Center for Election Systems in Aug. 2016, what he discovered left him speechless.

Although the cybersecurity researcher had no pbadword or particular authorization, he was ready by means of a Google search to obtain the state’s voter registration listing, view information with Election Day pbadwords, and entry what seemed to be databases used to organize ballots, tabulate votes, and summarize vote totals.

He additionally found a vulnerability that may permit anybody to take full management of a server used for Georgia’s elections.

It was every thing a Russian hacker – or any malicious intruder – would possibly have to disrupt the vote in Georgia.

“Had the bad guys wanted to just completely own the central election system, they could have,” Mr. Lamb advised the Monitor in an interview.

It stays unclear what number of months or years these vulnerabilities existed previous to the 2016 election. Even extra alarming, say pc and election safety specialists, had a hacker exploited the web site’s vulnerabilities, it may need been inconceivable to detect.

That’s as a result of voters in Georgia solid their ballots on digital touch-screen voting machines that produce no paper file of every vote. Without such a file, there isn’t any approach to confirm that a pc hacker didn’t reprogram the vote-counting software program to systematically badign extra votes to 1 candidate or one other.

More than 20 % of voters nationwide within the 2016 presidential election solid their ballots on voting machines that didn’t produce a verifiable paper path.

Aside from Georgia, 4 states – New Jersey, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Delaware – additionally rely totally on paperless touch-screen voting machines. In addition, paperless machines have been utilized in at the least some jurisdictions in 10 different states, together with Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida.

To a hacker such voting strategies are an open invitation to mischief or worse, safety specialists say. To officers and specialists involved with securing the accuracy of the US election course of, the strategies signify a gaping vulnerability.

Mindful of the US intelligence evaluation that Russian-backed hackers sought to meddle within the 2016 presidential election, The Christian Science Monitor got down to study key vulnerabilities within the election system. In two earlier tales, we touched on the potential for manipulating voter rolls and the tensions between minimizing fraud and defending voting rights. In this story, we conclude our sequence with a have a look at measures that might badist safe the accuracy of the vote depend.

Only a matter of time

In 2016, officers detected repeated makes an attempt to achieve entry to voter registration databases, however they are saying they discovered nothing to recommend vote totals have been manipulated.

“Although there is no evidence that any past election in the United States has been changed by hacking, it is – in my opinion – only a matter of time until one is,” says J. Alex Halderman, a pc science professor on the University of Michigan. “For that reason, the US needs to urgently reform and upgrade its voting infrastructure.”

Professor Halderman made his feedback throughout a current panel dialogue in Washington sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Until the 2016 election season, few Americans contemplated the likelihood hostile nation-state would possibly launch a concerted badault towards the essence of American democracy. Suddenly election safety turned a matter of nationwide safety.

This Oct. 14, 2016 file photograph reveals Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s names printed on a poll on a voting machine for use within the upcoming election in Philadelphia. The federal authorities on Sept. 22 advised election officers in 21 states that hackers focused their programs earlier than final 12 months’s presidential election. The notification got here roughly a 12 months after US Department of Homeland Security officers first stated states have been focused by hacking efforts presumably linked to Russia.

Matt Rourke/AP/File



“This threat is serious and real,” says Matthew Masterson, chairman of the US Election Assistance Commission. “It is going to take a coordinated effort from state and local officials, the federal government, and private-sector partners to respond.”

The US election infrastructure is a dizzying patchwork of grbadroots America, with 52 several types of voting machines counting ballots in 187,000 precincts throughout the nation.

Local officers who truly conduct the elections don’t maintain the required safety clearances to acquire the most recent intelligence briefings on foreign-source hacking traits and improvements.

Many rely closely on the experience of a small variety of voting machine producers, on election-service distributors, and on their very own typically underpaid IT professionals.

In addition, it’s not clear that the nation’s political leaders are totally dedicated to responding forcefully to deal with widespread election vulnerabilities. Resources and a spotlight in Washington are at the moment directed extra at politically explosive allegations that the Trump marketing campaign colluded with the Russians than at efforts to fortify American democracy towards overseas threats.

“It is not the all-hands-on-deck kind of response I would have expected after an attack on one of the key institutions of the country,” says Walter Mebane, an election forensics skilled on the University of Michigan.

For a few years a gaggle of main pc scientists and statistics students have been urging native, state, and nationwide leaders to confront America’s election vulnerabilities. They have even recognized an environment friendly and cheap approach to tackle it.

Their answer boils down to 1 phrase: paper.

No matter what kind of voting machine is used, an individual’s vote ought to be recorded on a paper poll, election safety specialists advise.

By preserving and defending each paper poll solid in an election, officers are safeguarding proof that may later be utilized in an audit to confirm real votes solid by actual individuals.

It isn’t simply the specter of hackers. A pc glitch or programming mistake might swing an in depth election or render digital outcomes ineffective.

The excellent news is that an estimated 77 % of American voters solid ballots on voting machines that both use or create a paper file of every vote.

In addition, 31 states have handed legal guidelines authorizing post-election audits to badist confirm election outcomes.

The dangerous information is that the overwhelming majority of those states both aren’t conducting sturdy post-election audits or they’re auditing the efficiency of the voting machines slightly than verifying that the proper candidate was declared the winner.

Who gained?

“The question that was being asked and answered is not the question that we really want to have asked and answered,” says Susannah Goodman, director of the nationwide voter integrity marketing campaign at Common Cause.

“The question is: Did the winner win? Is the right person in office?” she says. “That’s the question, but the question we were asking was, ‘Are these machines working?’ and let’s check that by checking some of the machines.”

Audits that examine the machines should not ineffective. They can confirm that the tabulator counted the ballots correctly. And they’ll detect a machine miscount, notably through the use of a distinct kind of machine with totally different software program which may higher interpret sure sorts of marks on a poll.

But a machine recount is not going to inform officers something about whether or not a pc hacker reprogrammed a voting machine to steal an election.

“They test hard drives, but what’s on the hard drives?” asks Neal McBurnett, an election safety guide working with election officers in Colorado. “What’s on the hard drives is whatever some Russian attacker put there, or some Iranian, or North Korean, or whoever.”

The key to conducting a sturdy audit is that it depends on the flexibility to check machine-counted vote totals towards voter-verifiable proof – precise paper ballots, Mr. McBurnett says. That is the stable basis upon which a reliable audit should be constructed, specialists say.

There are solely a handful of states within the US which are at the moment performing audits that begin with voter-verified paper ballots. Many counties in California have performed pioneering work with such audits. New Mexico hires an impartial CPA to oversea an audit of some key races in that state. And Rhode Island just lately enacted a regulation to develop a voter-verified audit system.

But the only most vital improvement on this space is about to happen in Colorado.

‘All eyes are on Colorado’

The election in Colorado is right now, Nov. 7. More vital for election safety specialists who can be watching carefully from throughout the nation, the important thing dates for the audit are Nov. 16, 17, and 18.

“All eyes are on Colorado. It is immensely important,” says Marian Schneider, president of the election integrity group, Verified Voting.

“This is going to be a blueprint for the rest of the country, hopefully,” provides Susan Greenhalgh, additionally of Verified Voting.

“A cool thing about Colorado is that we are going to gather evidence about every contest,” McBurnett says. That implies that each race and problem on the poll in Colorado, mbadive and small, can be topic to what’s known as a “risk-limiting audit.”

Such an audit is a scientific post-election comparability between precise paper ballots and the computerized vote totals which are produced by Colorado’s machine tabulators.

Colorado conducts its elections completely with mail-in ballots. The ballots are collected on the county stage and arranged into batches for counting.

The fundamental idea behind a risk-limiting audit is that it’s not essential to carry out a full hand-count of all of the ballots to reliably confirm an election end result.

The “magic” on this course of – primarily based on the science of statistics – is within the calculation of what number of randomly chosen ballots should be inspected to ensure an appropriate stage of certainty.

The benefit of a risk-limiting audit is that it sharply reduces the variety of ballots to be counted and accelerates the method of election verification.

Here’s the way it works:

First, election officers should set the parameters of the audit by deciding on an appropriate danger restrict. The danger restrict displays the extent of danger officers are keen to tolerate that the election course of recognized the fallacious individual because the winner.

For instance, a 9 % danger restrict would imply that election officers have been keen to simply accept a 9 % likelihood that the election result’s incorrect. Put otherwise: If there’s a discrepancy within the election course of, the ensuing audit may very well be anticipated to detect it 91 % of the time.

Once the danger restrict is agreed upon, officers should decide the margin of victory in every contest.

McBurnett makes use of the 2016 Clinton-Trump race in Colorado as an instance the method. He calculates Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory as four.9 %.

Assuming a danger restrict of 9 %, factoring within the margin of victory, and utilizing a singular algorithm, McBurnett concludes that auditors would wish to check 103 randomly chosen ballots (out of greater than 2.5 million votes) with 103 corresponding vote data from the pc tabulation to reliably verify the end result.

Moment of reality

This is actually the second of reality in any audit. It is the purpose the place the auditors would start to note any discrepancy between the paper ballots and the vote totals reported by machine tabulators. If a discrepancy is discovered, it might lead auditors to check a bigger pattern of ballots towards the corresponding digital vote data.

If all goes effectively, it could even be the second when skeptical voters watching this process start as soon as once more to belief an American election course of.

“We’ll have contests like this in real time. Anyone can watch 103 pieces of paper pulled out and verify that it was random and see that they just entered what the paper said and that it matches,” McBurnett says.

He calls the method a “new and complicated miracle.”

In addition to rebaduring American voters, such an audit is more likely to ship a transparent warning around the globe.

“What Russian is going to say, ‘Wow, there is a 91 percent chance I will be found out. Even if I do everything perfectly, they will still actually notice this,’ ” McBurnett says.

But there’s a catch. Any deterrent profit might not prolong past Colorado. “It [also] says go hack Pennsylvania or Georgia where they don’t have voter verifiable paper ballots,” the safety guide provides.

Hackers tasked by a overseas energy aren’t the one risk difficult election integrity.

McBurnett says audits like that in Colorado may badist deter election fraud in a small, rural county. He makes use of the instance of somebody who stands to profit from a $100 million bond problem. The individual could also be tempted to make use of a hacker-for-hire to ensure the bond problem is permitted on the polls.

A risk-limiting audit would probably expose the plot, he says, or deter it within the first place.

On the opposite hand, election safety specialists emphasize that an audit alone won’t ever be sufficient to totally defend the election course of.

For occasion, a risk-limiting audit is powerless to detect quaint poll stuffing. If somebody fraudulently obtained and voted numerous absentee ballots, the best risk-limiting audit would misinterpret the fraudulent ballots as real ballots since there can be no discrepancy between the paper ballots and the computerized solid vote totals.

Since audits aren’t a panacea, specialists say, election officers should additionally improve their cybersecurity defenses by limiting administrative privileges, updating firewall protections, sustaining information backups, and performing common danger evaluation and penetration testing to anticipate an attacker’s subsequent transfer.

There can also be a broader risk to American democracy if voters embrace the suggestion that we can’t belief that the 2016 election wasn’t hacked.

“That cannot be the standard,” says David Becker, govt director and co-founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

“We might by no means make certain that any election wasn’t hacked,” he says. “What we can be is pretty darn sure that the election results were accurate and counted as cast.”

He provides: “This is probably the most investigated election in history.”

In many instances an audit alone gained’t be sufficient to research elections. That’s the place Professor Mebane enters the image.

The election detective

Mebane is a professor of political science and statistics on the University of Michigan and a specialist in an rising tutorial self-discipline known as election forensics, which makes use of statistical evaluation to establish potential manipulation of voting processes.

“My expectation is that forensic badysis might be able to tell you stuff like if voters were intimidated or had their votes bought or were paid to stay home,” he says.

These are election discrepancies that may not be detected by an audit. Mebane is hopeful that his model of post-election sleuthing may also help uncover such issues and in the end badist restore confidence within the democratic course of.

Last 12 months, Mebane and Matthew Bernhard, a PhD candidate in pc science on the University of Michican, used their experience to research whether or not a pc hacker may need performed a component in President Trump’s slender victory in Wisconsin and Michigan.

In Michigan, Mr. Trump gained by a 10,702-vote margin (.22 %), and in Wisconsin by 22,748 votes (.76 %).

An try to power a complete recount of votes in each states was undertaken on the request of the Jill Stein marketing campaign, however the counting was halted within the courts earlier than it may very well be accomplished. Although they solely had information from a partial recount in each states, Mebane and Mr. Bernhard got down to see what they might discover.

“We were checking to see whether the original count and the re-counted count varied across different types of [voting and tabulation] machine technology being used in the particular jurisdiction,” Mebane explains.

“The idea was if the machines had been hacked then presumably they would have shown asymmetry in the way the two candidates were treated,” he says. “That could have been shown in the re-counted tallies versus the original tallies.”

If somebody had hacked into the voting or tabulation machines through the election, there was an opportunity that the recounts would possibly badist expose it. But it might solely present up if the recount was performed by hand. In different phrases, a machine recount of hacked ballots would present no discrepancy.

“Of course there could have been hacks that were not picked up by that difference because they were not all manual tabulations of the paper [ballots],” Mebane says.

Their conclusion: They discovered no proof hacker contributed to Trump’s victory in Michigan or Wisconsin.

“It was totally imperfect as a body of evidence,” Mebane concedes. “But it was better than nothing.”

Mebane’s badysis within the aftermath of the 2016 election illustrates the utility of getting a uniform, protected voter-verified file of ballots in each election.

Nonetheless, there are different, extra conventional methods to ensure election safety than risk-limiting audits or election forensics.

Counting by hand

In Columbia County, New York, voters fill out paper ballots which are fed into an optical scan voting machine. The ballots are tabulated by the machine, however then after the election county officers set up a small military of employees to manually depend each vote solid in each contested election.

Columbia County is southeast of Albany on the east facet of the Hudson River. It has about 40,000 registered voters out of a inhabitants of 63,000 individuals.

In the 2016 common election, 27,725 ballots have been solid on Election Day. Election employees hand-counted practically 21,000 of these ballots encompbading 65,000 separate votes for varied candidates and points.

Columbia County has been hand counting its ballots since 2010.

Virginia Martin is a commissioner on the Columbia County Board of Elections. She says she and her Republican counterpart on the board have been involved about permitting election outcomes to be decided inside a pc.

“I can’t see inside a computer. I don’t know how a computer counts votes,” Ms. Martin says. “But I know exactly how our races are counted by doing this.”

Since paper ballots have been already a part of the voting course of, they determined that they might merely hand depend the ballots after that they had been scanned into the voting machines.

The elections board reaches out to the group and creates bipartisan counting groups of two Democrats and two Republicans. Each workforce counts one precinct at a time. It took a couple of week to complete the depend for the 2016 common election, effectively inside the deadline to certify the outcomes.

Martin says hand counting affords a number of benefits over relying completely on a machine. In some instances, the machines are unable to detect a vote as a result of the voter positioned their mark outdoors the bubble or wrote outdoors the designated space for a write-in candidate.

If the election outcomes have been primarily based solely on the machine’s studying of the ballots, these votes wouldn’t be counted. Martin says when human eyes study the poll they’ll see the clear intent of the voter and depend the vote.

“We want to make sure our local candidates get every vote they are entitled to,” she says.

This stage of care within the counting is appreciated not solely by the election’s winners, however extra importantly by the losers.

“Isn’t that the point,” Martin says. “You want the losers to feel the result is accurate. The winners always feel the result is accurate, it is the losers you have to satisfy.”

Columbia County isn’t alone in its constancy to hand-counted accuracy. According to the Pew Research Center about one million paper ballots in 2016 have been hand-counted in 1,800 small counties, cities, and cities throughout the nation.

Most of them have been in New England, the Midwest, and the mountain area of the West, based on Pew.

A civic responsibility

Sheila Parks of the Boston-based Center for Hand-Counted Paper Ballots, calls the method “democracy in our hands.”

“Sitting and counting ballots isn’t so hard,” Ms. Parks says. “It feels like a civic duty to me. Why wouldn’t somebody want to do it?”

But there generally is a draw back handy counts. “Virtually every study on this will tell you that hand counting something is always much less accurate than machine counting,” says Mr. Becker. “People get tired and it is really hard to look at bubbles on a sheet.”

On the opposite hand, there may be additionally a tangible upside.

Last 12 months when allegations emerged that Russia may be attempting to hack the US election, in contrast to many different election officers Martin felt badured.

“There would be no point in anybody trying to hack our voting machines because we count the paper and we keep our paper very secure,” she says.

Some badysts see the problem of election safety as an funding, a type of down fee on the best of consultant authorities in America.

“I put this in the hands of the American people,” says McBurnett. “If you care about democracy, it only costs a little bit to do it right.”

Goodman of Common Cause agrees. “If you think about it as just an administrative function it probably costs some money. If you think about it as protecting our nation and preserving our democracy, it is not expensive at all,” she says.

“If you think about what we spend on our national defense, this wouldn’t even make a blip on the radar screen.”

Part 1: Could Henny Nelson, age 131, badist Russia rig an election?

Part 2: How efforts to stop fraud, and voting rights, collide

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