5 ways to improve voting security in the U.S.
Voting officials can pump up their audits and hire white-hat hackers
Oct 5, 2016 4:00 AM PT
By Grant Gross
Senior Editor, IDG News Service
With the U.S. presidential election just weeks away, questions about election security continue to dog the nation's voting system.
It's too late for election officials to make major improvements, ... However, officials can take several steps for upcoming elections, security experts say.
"Nobody should ever imagine changing the voting technology used this close to a general election," said Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa. "The best time to buy new equipment would be in January after a general election, so you've got almost two years to learn how to use it."
Stop using touchscreen electronic voting machines without printers
Fifteen states still use outdated touchscreen e-voting machines without printers attached in some or all of their voting precincts. E-voting machines without paper printouts don't give election officials a way to audit their internal vote counts, voting security critics say.
Many security experts say these e-voting machines, often called direct-recording electronic machines or DREs, still have several points of vulnerability. Jones, who has researched their security, has called on all DREs to be phased out, even the ones with attached printers. But it needs to be an "orderly" transition, he said.
"Don't declare an emergency and require everyone to buy new equipment right now," he said by email. "Doing that just creates a feeding frenzy among the manufacturers and leads to inflated prices, along with all the other problems that occur when people make important decisions under pressure."
The problem for states is the cost of replacing thousands of DREs. Congress allocated money for new election technology following the debacle in Florida in 2000, but money has been tight since then.
Conduct more extensive pre-election voting machine tests
Some states conduct extensive pre-election tests of their voting equipment, but other tests are less comprehensive, said Pamela Smith, president of elections security advocacy group Verified Voting.
Most jurisdictions conduct pre-election voting tests, but many "randomly select some machines" after ballot information ... is programmed in, Smith said. Testing all voting machines before an election would be more secure, she said.
Iowa's Jones discounted current pre-election testing in many jurisdictions. The testing usually doesn't involve security checks, but only a brief test of "only a few ballots per machine … long before election day," he said.
So, if hackers find a way to load malware onto voting machines, "the malware can easily distinguish between testing and a real election," he added.
Put better election auditing processes in place
Many states have post-election auditing processes in place that "don’t make sense statistically," said Kiniry, now CEO and chief scientist at Free and Fair, an election technology developer. ...
States should look at two kinds of voting audits, he recommended. Risk-limiting audits, now in place in California and Colorado, are statistically sound audits based on a recount of a small sample of ballots, he noted.
Secondly, voting officials can run parallel-testing audits, if they have extra voting machines. Officials randomly select machines to pull out of the voting process and run a mock election on those machines, using poll workers. With the parallel test, officials can check for malicious activity on those test machines.
Hire hackers to test your systems
The cheapest and most simple step election officials can take is to hire white-hat hackers, "even if it's an intern from a computer science department in your area," Kiniry said. Those outside security experts "can work with you and think like a bad guy," ...
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has also offered to help states check their voting security, ...
Ensure that strong physical security is in place
Many voting jurisdictions have improved the physical security of their voting machines in recent years, ... said Verified Voting's Smith.
Voting officials still have time to add observers before, during, and after the election, Kiniry added. One of the best steps they can take is to "get more volunteers to work polling places and more good-natured citizens of all stripes being election observers, primarily during early vote processing, tabulation, canvassing, and audits," he said.