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Election sabotage: A threat much older than hacked e-voting

Nov 05, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityNetwork Security

Ever since the debacle that was Election 2000, concerns over the accuracy and security of e-voting continues to preoccupy. But history is littered with hints of sabotage that predate the invention of these machines.

Tomorrow we finally get to put the 2012 election behind us. We’ll finally cast our votes and we’ll know if it’s President Obama again or President Romney. Or will we?

With presidential polls virtually tied, fears abound that e-voting problems in one state can cause a deadlocked result as we saw in 2000. There are the natural concerns about the impact Superstorm Sandy’s damage will have in hard-hit areas. In New Jersey, for example, voters in heavily damaged locations will have the option of emailing or faxing their vote.

Among the concerns: E-voting can easily be tampered with.

Huffington Post writer Gerry Smith captures the security risks in “Electronic Voting Machines Still Widely Used Despite Security Concerns.” He makes note of the myriad security holes researchers have uncovered over time:

For years, researchers have been aware of numerous security flaws in electronic voting machines. They’ve found ways to hack the machines to swap votes between candidates, reject ballots or accept 50,000 votes from a precinct with just 100 voters.  Yet on Nov. 6, millions of voters — including many in hotly contested swing states — will cast ballots on e-voting machines that researchers have found are vulnerable to hackers. What is more troubling, say some critics, is that election officials have no way to verify that votes are counted accurately because some states do not use e-voting machines that produce paper ballots.

After the “hanging chad” controversy of the 2000 election, Congress passed a federal law that gave states funding to replace their punch card and lever voting systems with electronic voting machines. But computer scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that a variety of electronic voting machines can be hacked — often quite easily.

“Every time they are studied, we find further problems,” said J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan who researches voting machine security. “It’s simply a matter of reprogramming these machines to be dishonest,” Halderman added. “That’s what we found six years ago and it’s still true today, and many of these machines are still in use.”  

But Doug Gross of CNN noted in his article “How secure is your electronic vote?” that the machines are getting more reliable. He wrote:

In an era when shadowy hackers can snatch secret government files and humble big businesses with seeming ease, it’s an unavoidable question as Election Day approaches: When we go to the polls, could our very votes be at risk? According to voting-security experts, the answer can be boiled down to a bit of campaign-speak:

There are reasons for concern and there is work to be done but, by and large, we’re better off now than we were four years ago.

“In general terms, the nation as a whole is moving toward more resilient, more recountable, evidence-based voting systems and that’s a good thing,” said Pamela Smith, president of the Verified Voting Foundation. “We’re better off than we were a couple of election cycles ago by a long shot and we’re better off than we were in the last election, too. “We’re seeing improvement, but we’re still seeing immense challenges.”

Are we really better off than we were in recent elections? I think so.

There are indeed vulnerabilities aplenty to be found, but that’s the case for just about any type of computing device in use today, especially those that connect to the Internet. There are also non-security glitches that can wreck a person’s vote, but voting that goes off without incident seems to far outweigh any reported problems.

Besides, voting irregularities didn’t start with the advent of e-voting. One of my favorite stories involves the election of 1960. There are many out there who believe JFK stole the election from Nixon. David Greenberg tells the tale in a Slate column called “Was Nixon Robbed?” An excerpt:

“You gotta swallow this one,” says a Republican hack in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, referring to the 1960 election, in which John F. Kennedy prevailed. “They stole it fair and square.”

That Richard Nixon was cheated out of the presidency in 1960 has become almost an accepted fact. You’ve probably heard the allegations: Kennedy’s operatives fixed the tallies in Texas and Illinois, giving him those states’ 51 electoral votes and a majority in the Electoral College. Fearing that to question the results would harm the country, Nixon checked his pride and declined to mount a challenge.

Even before Election Day, rumors circulated about fraud, especially in Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley’s machine was known for delivering whopping Democratic tallies by fair means and foul. When it became clear how narrowly Nixon lost, outraged Republicans grew convinced that cheating had tipped the election and lobbied for an investigation. 

There are tales of election fraud that go back even further.

The election of 1876 was one of the worst examples. New York’s Samuel J. Tilden of New York beat Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote and accumulated 184 electoral votes to Hayes’s 165. Twenty more electoral votes  — and the presidency — went to Hayes after a long and rancorous legal and political battle. Democrats let it go in exchange for a Republican pledge to pull troops from the south, effectively ending Reconstruction. The ramifications of that shady deal on history are immense.

Some argue that it was easier to throw elections when we all used paper ballots, and that electronic machines don’t lie. In some ways that’s true. Bottom line: There will always be voters here and there that get shafted. It can be the dangling chads and butterfly ballots of 2000. Or it could be an innocent or deliberate glitch in e-voting technology.

This year we’ll likely see additional problems because of Sandy. I hope they are minor, but we’ll see.