Election 2012 Hacking Threat: 10 Facts
"How Badly Could You Mess That Up?"
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What's the risk? Simply put, large numbers of voters could be disenfranchised from voting if a hacker reassigned their voting precinct to another one located across the state, requiring them to either travel to the other precinct, or to fill out a provisional ballot. Either way, that could prevent the state resident from voting in local, or in some cases even Congressional, elections.
Voting rights groups hadn't been paying attention to how such systems were created. "We thought, 'How badly could you mess that up?' Well, we learned," Rebecca Wilson, co-director of non-profit group Save Our Votes, told The New York Times, which first reported the story of the Maryland and Washington security vulnerabilities. "Now, anyone in the world can write a computer program that commits absentee ballot fraud on a mass scale."
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Of course, any election-related system that's connected to the Internet is potentially at risk of being hacked. "If big, Internet-based companies like Yahoo, LinkedIn, or Sony can fall to hackers, then, yeah, big government databases and local authorities who actually administer the election process can be hacked," Stephen Cobb, security evangelist for ESET, told Dark Reading. "I'm somewhat surprised it hasn't happened yet."
9. Voting Legitimacy At Risk
Beyond overt hacking, another way that elections can be compromised--and trigger related lawsuits from irate voters--is if voters don't believe that their votes were accurately recorded. Furthermore, according to a June 2012 poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports, half of U.S. voters don't think elections are fair to voters.
"There are two purposes to an election: one is to decide a winner, and two is to confer legitimacy upon the winner," said Clear Ballot's Moore. "If a substantial portion of voters don't feel their vote is being legitimately counted, then there's no legitimacy."
Here's how one voter in Texas, in a precinct that uses touchscreen voting systems, sees the problem: "When I vote, the election officials give me a sticker. There are two choices. One says 'I Voted,' the other reads 'My Vote Counted,'" according to an online comment made to the "Risk of E-Voting Meltdown" blog post. "I won't accept a 'My Vote Counted' sticker because I have no faith that it is correct. ... I've looked into early voting, but that's still done with the electronic systems. Absentee voting is done on paper, but under Texas law I'm not eligible to vote absentee unless I spend an entire month away from home."
10. Surveys Could Detect Failures
Changes are being put in place to help detect voting system irregularities, regardless of how they might have been caused. For starters, two-thirds of states will offer many of their residents a way to verify that their votes were correctly captured, if requested, for example by having the system read back the votes they've selected.
Clear Ballot, meanwhile, is currently working with three states--Florida, New Hampshire, and New York--to audit some of their election results, and it hopes that more states will use its technology to provide an independent audit of election results. However they're conducted, audits are essential for spotting breakdowns in the vote-counting process. Norden at the Brennan Center for Justice, for example, has said that "over votes"--when someone has apparently voted for more than one person for the same office--are extremely rare. Accordingly, a spike in over votes, as happened in the South Bronx, most typically indicates a voting machine or vote-counting failure.
Thankfully, audits are on the increase. "This year, officials in half the states will carry out some kind of post-election audit using ... records of voter intent to check the functioning of the vote counting technology in local use," according to the Caltech/MIT report. "Though many of these audits lack robustness at present, enormous progress is being made as states examine more effective and efficient ways to audit."
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