In this November’s presidential election, Virginia voters will cast ballots on machines that use wireless technology state lawmakers barred five years ago to protect voting machines from hackers. Continued reliability and security concerns over electronic voting are not unique to Virginia, or to machines that use wireless technology, but the case illustrates the credibility issues that have plagued electronic voting machines in use across the country in the aftermath of the messy 2000 presidential election, when the federal government mandated changes to election systems and processes. Virginia’s election workers in some precincts use the wireless technology to upload ballots and tally vote totals from multiple machines at a polling station. The wireless electronic tallying is an effort to avoid the human error possible in a manual count. Fears that wireless transmission capabilities could present an opening to hackers led Virginia lawmakers to ban the use of the technology in voting machines in 2007. “It makes it easier to hack systems when you have an open interface that can be accessed remotely from outside the polling place, like in a parking lot,” said Jeremy Epstein, a computer researcher who helped draft the state’s legislation to bar wireless from polling stations. “It magnifies any other vulnerability in the voting system.”
A polling place worker assists a voter with a digital voting machine April 3, 2012 in Potomac, Maryland. But the ban was modified one year later to allow the use of wireless on machines the state already purchased. The reversal came as the 2008 presidential election neared, after local officials said the ballot machines wouldn’t work without wireless connections, and there was no money to replace them. The wireless technology is part of the AVS WinVote system, a touch screen voting machine used at 32 of Virginia’s polling localities, where more than a third of the swing state will cast ballots in November. To date, there have been no verified instances of hackers using wireless capabilities to influence the outcome of an election, but advocates – and many lawmakers – believe the potential for such malfeasance combined with the difficulty of verifying vote totals could undermine public confidence in elections.
The state board of elections maintains that the WinVote has “strict security protocols” and its local officials “are confident that with their internal security procedures and logic and accuracy testing, the system has performed as designed,” Nikki Sheridan, a spokeswoman, said in an email. The continued use of the AVS WinVote in Virginia this year illustrates the trouble facing states that purchased electronic voting machines with federal funds made available by the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The law was intended to encourage states to purchase electronic voting systems and prevent the ambiguity of hanging chads that dogged the Florida results in the 2000 election. But many states like Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey now have buyer’s remorse over security and reliability concerns.