Russia’s apparent attempt to interfere with the 2016 presidential election continues to make news. Some reports have suggested that voting systems were attacked — by unknown parties and in various ways — in at least 39 states. These attacks make it increasingly obvious just how vulnerable American voting systems are. This is not the first time our voting systems have been tested. After the 2000 presidential election, voting systems were updated to prevent simple counting errors. The margin of victory in Florida in the infamous 2000 presidential election was a mere 537 votes, less than the margin of error of the voting procedures then in use. We will never know who would have become president had the systems used at that time been more accurate. Less well known is that earlier that same year Al Gore won the first (and only) significant U.S. election ever run over the internet — the Arizona Democratic primary. My company at that time had been contracted to run that primary, and we assumed that every hacker in the world would be trying to sabotage that statewide election.
We had the best minds from Cisco, VeriSign, Microsoft, KMPG and Computer Horizons come together to build our cyber defenses against inevitable attacks, at a collective cost of more than $10 million. That online election was a success, more than doubling the previous record for voter turnout.
After that Arizona primary, incumbents were rattled, recognizing that massive increases in turnout would end the substantial advantages now enjoyed by incumbents. Online voting was subsequently prohibited. Indeed, as voting machines were replaced throughout the U.S., they were largely replaced with paper ballots, under the assumption that since paper cannot be hacked by a computer, paper ballots ensure safe elections. As it turns out, the exact opposite is true, and the our voting system is now easy prey for state-sponsored adversaries.
Popular wisdom is that to swing the election of an American president one would have to compromise the board of elections in all 3,000 United States counties; the highly decentralized nature of our voting systems makes us safe. In actuality, however, the Electoral College means that most of the time, votes in states like Texas, New York, California or Mississippi do not matter; only swing-state voters pick the president. To throw an election, an adversary would only have to alter the vote in three Florida counties and a handful of counties in a few other states, such as Ohio or Pennsylvania.