When a group of Rhode Island’s top officials gathered in a chilly warehouse in Providence in mid-January to fight foreign interference in U.S. elections, the mood was festive. After Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s name was pulled out of a knit Patriots hat, the crowd applauded and cheered uproariously. And when she leaned over a plastic table to roll a 10-sided die typically used for Dungeons and Dragons, people watched intensely. Then the work began. The number generated from 20 rolls of the dice was used to pick the ballots that would be pulled and tested to see if November’s vote counting had been done correctly, a final fail-safe against a hacked election, all done in plain view of the public. “Democracy and elections are only as good as whether people trust them or not,” Gorbea said. “Confidence in our democracy is critical to every other public policy issue.” Voting experts say this kind of election audit is critical to thwarting attempts to meddle with American democracy. It not only detects problems with ballot counting, but the open nature of the audit itself also helps restore voters’ confidence in the system.
… Because a risk-limiting audit takes place after an election, it cannot prevent hackers from gaining access to votes. But that is not the biggest risk facing U.S. elections. Despite all the fears raised in 2016, the prospect of a national election being hacked is highly unlikely, election officials and security experts say. The U.S. election system is extremely decentralized, making it difficult to cause a uniform problem, and the paper records that exist for the majority of votes mean that cyber intruders would need a very complex strategy targeting just the right unsecured ballots to affect any outcome.
The much more immediate threat is that of people losing confidence in elections. “One of the terrifying things about a real threat — from Russians or anyone — is that they don’t have to change a lot of votes, or maybe any votes, to create a lot of fear,” says Mark Lindeman, an election auditing expert at election security advocacy group Verified Voting, who helped design Rhode Island’s pilot audit. “That doubt persists.”