August 14, 2020

Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, fears about the security of our democracy are heightening, particularly as COVID-19 forces us to adapt our voting practices. Many states are expanding access to mail-in voting, prompting cries of fraud from the Trump administration. But maybe it’s traditional voting machines that we should really be worried about, instead of mailed-in paper ballots, says J. Alex Halderman

Halderman is a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on computer security and privacy, and throughout his career, he’s examined the intersection of politics and technology. That’s included extensive work on the security of voting technology used in the United States, and its susceptibility to cyberattacks.

Three Takeaways:

  • Halderman cautions that voting technology should not be blindly trusted — and he has proof. Halderman hacked a mock election held at the University of Michigan for the title of “greatest university” (the other contender was UMich’s rival, Ohio State) in 2018. The actual winner, confirmed by paper ballots filled out by voters, was the University of Michigan, but that’s not what the machine-generated results said. Halderman created and installed malicious software on each machine that changed some of the votes as they were cast, a technique that can be used in actual elections. Halderman and other experts have studied numerous voting machines used across the country, and they’ve found ways for hackers to change the record of the vote in virtually every system.
  • In 2016, Russian election interference went beyond social media bots and leaking campaign emails — hackers probed the election systems of all 50 states, and successfully gained access to the voter registration records of several. Even though they didn’t change those records, their considerable capabilities might undermine the legitimacy of future elections in the minds of many Americans. Add that to the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes delays and breakdowns in November more likely, and according to Halderman, it could become easier than ever to doubt the results.
  • A paper trail of ballots - allowing for post-election recounts - is crucial, but some states are introducing technology that prints paper ballots based on what voters input on an electronic machine. These ballot-marking devices are still susceptible to hacking and hamper our ability to create a reliable paper trail. This fall, voters can do their part to ensure a secure election by checking over their paper ballots carefully, making sure they correctly indicate their chosen candidates.

More Reading:

  • Check out this video from The New York Times documenting Halderman’s hacked election at the University of Michigan.
  • This article from NPR provides a summary of mail-in voting, including a video on how COVID-19 will impact 2020 elections. 
  • Read this piece to learn about the 2019 Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian hacking during the 2016 elections.

J. Alex Halderman, elections, hacking, politics

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