A few weeks ago computer scientist J. Alex Halderman rolled an electronic voting machine onto a Massachusetts Institute of Technology stage and demonstrated how simple it is to hack an election. In a mock contest between George Washington and Benedict Arnold three volunteers each voted for Washington. But Halderman, whose research involves testing the security of election systems, had tampered with the ballot programming, infecting the machine’s memory card with malicious software. When he printed out the results, the receipt showed Arnold had won, 2 to 1. Without a paper trail of each vote, neither the voters nor a human auditor could check for discrepancies. In real elections, too, about 20 percent of voters nationally still cast electronic ballots only. As the U.S. midterm elections approach, Halderman, among others, has warned our “outmoded and under-tested” electronic voting systems are increasingly vulnerable to attacks. They can also lead to confusion. Some early voters in Texas have already reported votes they cast for Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Beto O’Rourke were switched on-screen to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. There’s no evidence of hacking, and the particular machines in question are known to have software bugs, which could account for the errors.
Halderman does not think an attack is to blame. “If it was, the candidate switch wouldn’t be visible to either the voter nor election officials,” he says. “But what’s happening in Texas is another warning sign of aging machines not functioning well, which makes them fertile ground for vote-stealing attacks.”
Ultimately—whether scenarios like the one in Texas stem from glitchy software, defective machinery or an adversarial hack—one outcome is a loss of confidence in our election process. And as cybersecurity journalist Kim Zetter recently wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “It’s not too grand to say that if there’s a failure in the ballot box, then democracy fails.”
Halderman, who directs the University of Michigan Center for Computing and Society, recently spoke with Scientific American about the different types of technological threats to democracy—and how good old-fashioned paper can safeguard elections.