To hear Alex Halderman tell it, hacking the vote is easy. The University of Michigan professor is on a crusade to demonstrate how vulnerable American voting machines are, and some of his arguments are quite compelling. He has rigged mock elections. He has testified to the machines’ vulnerabilities in Congress and in court. He has even managed to turn a commonly used voting machine into an iteration of the classic arcade game Pac-Man. “They’re just computers at the end of the day,” said Halderman, who told the Senate Intelligence Committee last year that states should move back to paper ballots. “Often with voting machines, when you open it up, it’s not that different from a desktop PC or mobile device. The only difference is that it’s going to be 10 years out of date, or sometimes 20 years.”
Election officials, on the other hand, say those concerns are overblown. Hacking the vote, according to them, would be all but impossible, because it would be too difficult for hackers to gain physical access to the machines on Election Day without drawing notice.
“In the real world of elections, it’s ludicrous,” said Clifford Rodgers, administrator of elections in Knox County, Tenn. “We’ve got people watching people come in to vote.They’re not coming in with screwdrivers to open it up. They’re not coming in with computers.”
With the midterms fast approaching amid the ongoing fallout from Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, concerns about vote hacking have never been higher. But while academics, cybersecurity professionals, and hackers say American votes can be hacked, election officials insist they can’t. Understanding the dispute is key to understanding how secure – or not — American elections are.