Paper ballots are safest for our elections -- on one condition

Last summer, at the DefCon hacking conference in Las Vegas, it took hackers...

Posted: Nov 6, 2018 11:10 AM
Updated: Nov 6, 2018 11:10 AM

Last summer, at the DefCon hacking conference in Las Vegas, it took hackers less than one day to infiltrate five different types of electronic voting machines. The hackers told reporters that breaking into the machines didn't involve much "hacking" at all. Sometimes a simple Google search revealed passwords that unlocked the administrative functions of the machines.

Consider this as we approach Tuesday's midterm elections. The political map shows many tight races, including 73 House races that are classified as "highly competitive." Despite this bitter, politically charged environment, election security can and should be a bipartisan issue. Voters from all parties -- in the midterms and in every election to come -- deserve to feel secure that their votes are counted and that results are accurate.

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But the threat to our elections persists, as we have already seen this election cycle. The Department of Homeland Security announced last month that there had been a number of cyberattackers seeking to gain entry into election databases leading up to the midterms.

And there is irrefutable evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, and our intelligence agencies are on high alert for any attempts to interfere in the midterms. There is a lack of coordination between intelligence agencies, however, and the continuing failure of too many elected officials to acknowledge the problem. We owe voters more than this.

In order for voters to have confidence that their votes are counted and that the result is an honest one, we need to be able to catch problems. Election officials have to defend every machine. Adversaries only need to infect one.

Most counties use paper ballots. It is by far the most hacking-immune voting method. As Governor of New Mexico, I standardized paper balloting in all 33 counties of our state to improve the public trust in our election system. But moving to paper balloting is only a first step and sometimes it leads to a false sense of security. There is no use in having a paper trail if no one checks it.

Thousands of election machines across the country count paper ballots. Election machines are computers, however, so they can be hacked. They can be hacked when they get annual updates, when they sit at polling places before an election, and when thumb drives move election results between the machines and the web.

These weaknesses will let hackers leak in, somewhere, sometime. Adversaries can be local crooks, hostile foreign governments, or international criminals.

Humboldt County, California, and seven Florida counties have a good defense. They scan all ballots and they tally the scans to get fresh, independent election results. Vermont's Secretary of State does the same in six towns chosen at random. This independent scanning and tallying doubles the defense against hackers and is much more affordable than hand-counting. In Humboldt County, when the nonprofit Elections Transparency Project began verifying election results in 2008, it found a discrepancy between the scanned and tallied ballots of 197 ballots, but project representatives report that they aren't finding bigger discrepancies now.

Other counties in California, Florida, and about half the states hand-count ballots in 1% to 3% of precincts. This approach, then, has a 1% to 3% chance of catching a hacked precinct, or 0% if someone can leave that precinct out of the hat when the random sample is drawn. Most of these states only check a few races. In California, ballots arriving after Election Day are not checked at all -- indeed, almost half the states do not check at all. We cannot catch election errors if we are not looking for them.

We can and must check more. Counties can hire a scanning and tallying company, as Florida and Vermont do, or use open-source software as Humboldt County does. Programmers need to adapt this open-source software to local ballots. It is also important to ensure the scans are accurate by checking a good sample against the original paper ballots.

Election software and contracting companies can be hacked. VR Systems was hacked in 2016. It manages voter lists and election results. A Putin associate owns most of ByteGrid, which hosts Maryland's election website. Other election contractors may have dubious owners too. Staff at Election Systems & Software (ES&S) had their passwords and email addresses leak onto the web. The CIA, NSA, and big Silicon Valley companies have been hacked, so no one is immune.

Ballot storage also needs an upgrade. The main risks to stored ballots have been from insiders, so storage rooms need multiple locks and security systems, with keys held by independent officials. Another approach is to scan ballots daily, as Leon County, Florida does, and seal a digital copy in a safe deposit box. We can reach ballot security if we check tallies, and build lifeboats, such as scanning and tallying independently.

It seems as if our country is divided on every issue. The preservation of the integrity of our elections is one issue that Republicans and Democrats could work together on. Certainly we can agree on that.

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