Millions of voters going to the polls Tuesday will cast their ballots on machines blasted as unreliable and inaccurate for two decades by computer scientists from Princeton University to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Toyed with by white-hat hackers and targeted for scathing reviews from secretaries of state in California and Ohio, Direct Recording Electronic voting systems, or DREs, have startled Illinois voters by flashing the word “Republican” at the top of a ballot and forgotten what day it was in South Carolina. They were questioned in the disappearance of 12,000 votes in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, in 2002 and 18,000 votes in Sarasota County, Florida, in 2006.
“Antiquated, seriously flawed and vulnerable to failure, breach, contamination and attack,” U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg wrote of Georgia’s aging DRE system before ordering the state to replace it in 2019.
“No one is using a computer they purchased in the 1990s,” said Warren Stewart, senior editor and data specialist for Verified Voting, a nonprofit advocacy group tracking election systems. But voters in more than 300 counties and 12,000 precincts will be casting ballots using DRE technology already aging in the 1990s, when flash drives were bleeding-edge tech and Netscape Navigator was the next new thing.
DREs aren’t the only problematic voting systems. As late as July, more than 1,200 jurisdictions were planning to count absentees on scanners so old they are no longer manufactured, and it’s not clear how many, if any, updated their equipment since then.
New technology also has its share of criticism. Internet voting has been roundly panned by computer experts citing wide-open opportunities for hacking. Georgia’s replacement system for DREs had been rejected by Texas and is the subject of a court battle over accuracy.
All election systems are for the most part black boxes: proprietary software and hardware jealously guarded by the handful of companies selling them. But state reviews and court cases opening up DRE systems of all makes and models for examination have for years flagged problems.
In New Jersey in 2008, Princeton computer scientist Andrew Appel and a five-member team got a rare look under the hood of an AVC Advantage DRE, part of a lawsuit alleging DREs could not reliably count votes.
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Among the findings: The system sometimes only seemed to record a vote. It sometimes did record a vote but seemed not to. It would take one screwdriver and seven minutes to insert a vote-stealing program. That kind of hack would probably be invisible, Appel concluded.
More than a decade later, Appel is still talking about DRE vulnerabilities. And although the New Jersey governor, citing COVID-19, has created a nearly all-mail election, 19 New Jersey counties still have their DRE equipment on hand for the next contest, according to state records.
Nationally, if the surge in absentee ballots has not decreased in-person voting, more than 14 million registered voters would be going Tuesday to polls that are equipped with DREs.
“The whole community of computer scientists is mystified why election officials will not listen to experts about technology but will listen to the vendors (selling and maintaining it),” said Duncan Buell, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Carolina who examined that state’s system.
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Paper is new gold standard for voting
DRE systems have been manufactured by different companies, and just as with any digital product, all have revised and upgraded their DREs over the years. Security patches have been added and machinery locks strengthened. Critics, though, have never been convinced that the technology can be brought to the accuracy and security standards an election demands.
To start with, the new gold standard for voting is paper.
Voters hand-marking their own paper ballots can verify their selection before the vote is counted by a machine. If the election is close or challenged, or if software fails, a paper ballot can be used to audit results. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine declared that elections should be using human-readable paper ballots by this year – and voting equipment without such ballots should be removed as soon as possible.
Without paper, the voter is completely dependent on the machine technology to count accurately. The vast majority of DREs flunk the paper test, according to data collected by Verified Voting.
“The real problem with DREs is that you cannot recover (vote results), even if you are lucky enough to detect that there is an error or it has been tampered with,” said Marian Schneider, former president of Verified Voting.
Some election officials could not afford to swap out their aging DREs even before COVID-19 costs for such things as absentee ballots, postage, and personal protective equipment for poll workers burned through their budgets.
Some mistakenly believe that as long as an election system is not directly connected to the internet it is secure. Others point to long track records with their DRE systems with no evidence of foul play.
“It does bother me a bit,” said Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin of criticism leveled at DREs. His own state’s DREs are among the oldest in the country, purchased in 2005. When COVID-19 hit, the state leased newer equipment, and Ardoin has said he wants to purchase new machines. But it also bothers Ardoin that criticism of the DRE technology overlooks years of smooth elections.
Heading into the spring primaries, Lewis County, Kentucky was equally comfortable with its fleet of Shouptronic 1242s, hulking DRE tabulators so old that two are warehoused in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“It’s always worked,” said County Clerk Glenda Himes.
Election officials and companies consistently defend their DREs, arguing that security criticisms have been overblown, vulnerabilities fixed and puzzling outcomes explained.
Major vendors Election Systems & Software and Dominion Voting Systems Corp. have emphasized that there has never been evidence of a successful DRE hack in real-world conditions, much less evidence that a cybersecurity breach of a DRE jeopardized any vote. Still, Omaha, Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, the largest of the top three election system companies, has announced it will stop selling any paperless election system for general use.
Problems with voting touchscreens
In Alpharetta, Georgia, Nathaniel Lack spent part of Election Day in 2018 trying to hit a moving target. In a court affidavit, Lack said he tapped the touchscreen next to a candidate’s name to vote, but it didn’t register.
Trying again, he tapped the touchscreen a little farther from the candidate’s name, and then a little farther until he finally got the vote to stick. A poll worker told him other voters had to tap on the machine’s screen in “odd places.”
Lack was among voters in a dozen Georgia counties reporting problems with DRE screens, including touchscreens that switched a voter’s choice to a vote for another candidate.
It is an old problem. Between 2006 and 2008, reports of vote-switching DREs surfaced in New Jersey, Texas, West Virginia, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. In Arkansas, then-Pulaski County Elections Director Susan Inman said she was told the problem was an optical illusion created when the view of the screen for voters over 6 feet tall was distorted by their height.
“I thought that was kind of silly,” Inman said.
In her later unsuccessful bid for secretary of state, Inman ran on adopting an all-mail voting system. “They trounced me for that,” she said. But, until recently in Pulaski, she said, “Could you believe it? They were still using the same system.”
In the contested 2018 Georgia governor’s race, too-short voters, too-long fingernails and voters’ too-fat fingers were all floated as possible explanations for why people voting for Democrat Stacey Abrams watched their on-screen votes shift to Republican Brian Kemp, the secretary of state overseeing elections and the ultimate winner.
The possibility of shifting names had figured into Pennsylvania computer scientists scrutiny of a widely used DRE. Among the “serious and undetectable hacks” made possible by a laundry list of vulnerabilities, they found a PalmPilot, a magnet and about one minute would be enough to recalibrate a touchscreen and keep people from voting for a specific candidate.
Voter reports of shifting and disappearing names on Election Day in the 2006 Sarasota, Florida, 13th Congressional District race — and approximately 18,000 “missing” ballots — ignited a congressional hearing and General Accounting Office investigation.
The contest pitting former bank president Christine Jennings and businessman Vern Buchanan had given Buchanan a 369-vote edge. The final count also showed thousands of voters made choices for the race above the Jennings-Buchanan match on the ballot and below it, but cast no votes for either of the congressional contenders: a dramatic undervote.
The GAO report cleared the DRE system of miscounting. So did two separate Florida reviews.
But computer scientists David Dill of Stanford University and Dan Wallach of Rice University questioned whether the investigations went far enough. In one state report, researchers had referred to large numbers of bugs they found in the system, pointed out Dill and Wallace. The bugs weren’t considered pertinent to the state investigation. They were not made public.
An inside look at voting system
In 2007, secretaries of state in Ohio and California took a detailed look at how votes were being counted in their state.
The Ohio secretary of state’s review found one DRE system in wide use both in Ohio and across the country had “several pervasive, critical failures,” including failing to follow industry security standards.
California’s secretary of state found one DRE system was built around an inherently fragile design. In another, virtually every important software security mechanism was vulnerable. A third appeared to be susceptible to a variety of attacks that would allow an attacker to control the system.
In all cases, cryptography, the coding enabling information to be kept secret, was flawed or missing.
It’s against that backdrop that even small glitches raise eyebrows.
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In the November 2018 election, Buell, the South Carolina computer scientist, reported a Barnwell County precinct terminal counted 58 votes — from the previous June. In Kershaw County, a terminal recorded it started counting votes the day after the election.
Other reports are more high-profile. University of Michigan computer scientist J. Alex Halderman, director of the university’s Center for Computer Security and Society, showed two members of Congress in 2018 how a presidential contest won by George Washington could be flipped to Benedict Arnold. Eight years earlier, he and a colleague had programmed a DRE to play Pac Man.
DEF CON, an annual hackers’ conference, has regularly packed a “Voting Village” with older election systems and invited people of all skill sets — including children — to poke for vulnerabilities. The very first machine to be hacked in the Voting Village launch was a DRE. It took minutes.
Shelby County, Tennessee, Elections Administrator Linda Phillips is skeptical.
Citing a panicked voter who sent her video of someone rebooting a machine at DEF CON, Phillips said hackers can leisurely disassemble equipment. That’s not going to happen on Election Day.
“Some of my poll workers may be older, but I am sure they would notice if someone was taking a voting machine apart.”
Even if the DRE technology was perfect, however, many of the systems are aging. Older screens can be trickier to calibrate. Parts can be hard to come by.
Not in Lewis County, Kentucky, though. Himes, the county clerk, recently replaced the Shouptronics with new equipment, bringing the machines’ decades-long role in U.S. presidential contests to an end.
Contributing: Catharina Felke of Columbia Journalism Investigations
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will your vote be counted? Experts warn of unreliable voting machines