New Analysis Shows Voting Machines Remain Vulnerable Ahead of 2020 Election

March 5, 2019

Media Contact: Rebecca Autrey, Rebecca.Autrey@nyu.edu, 646-292-8316

New York, N.Y. – America’s voting machines fall far short of necessary security requirements and recommended best-practices going into the 2020 election, leaving them vulnerable to cyberattacks or malfunctions on Election Day. Despite progress last year, the new analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law shows that, among other problems, 45 states are using voting equipment that’s no longer manufactured, and 12 continue to use paperless machines as their primary polling place equipment in at least some counties. 

Voting Machines at Risk – Where We Stand Today is culled from Brennan Center research and a recent survey sent to local election officials nationwide. It updates earlier analyses from March 2018 and September 2015

There have been some promising developments at the state and federal level, including $380 million allocated by Congress last year to help states bolster election security. But researchers found that outdated equipment is still a staple in jurisdictions across the country, and post-election checks are haphazard. The 937 election officials across 46 states who answered the survey also told the Brennan Center they still lack the funds for adequate training, IT support, and more. 

“It’s essential that we prioritize fixing our election infrastructure now, ahead of the next presidential election in 2020,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We face threats not only from foreign countries, but also the wear-and-tear of decades of use. Election officials are largely doing what they can, but recent progress is short of what current circumstances demand. More money is needed, both from Congress and state legislatures, to ensure that jurisdictions have what they need to ensure free, fair, and secure elections.” 

Election officials in 40 states said they’re using equipment that’s more than 10 years old, one less than last year. The age of the machines can make it difficult or impossible to find replacement parts in the event parts break. It can also contribute to malfunctions that create long lines on Election Day. And too often machines are so old that vendors aren’t writing security patches for the software anymore, leaving them more vulnerable to cyberattacks. 

“We are driving the same car in 2019 that we were driving in 2004, and the maintenance costs are mounting up,” said Rokey Suleman, a former elections director for Richland County, South Carolina. 
 
Twelve states still use paperless voting machines in some areas – down from 13 states in March 2018. Four – Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina – use them statewide. Shantiel Soeder, election and compliance administrator at Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said using machines without paper back-ups is “almost irresponsible.”

This risky equipment does not produce a record that can be used to either verify electronic vote tallies in the event of a hack, or to help identify a hack through a post-election auditing process. 

Researchers found that even if states are using machines that produce paper records, often there’s no requirement to perform audits of the results after an election. In 2020, only two states will mandate post-election checks that provide the highest level of confidence in the accuracy of the final vote tally, known as risk-limiting audits. That number could increase soon – jurisdictions in Michigan, Rhode Island, Virginia, Indiana, and California have recently piloted risk-limiting audits or indicate that they plan to in 2019. Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C., conduct pre-certification audits of some kind.  

Election officials also told the Brennan Center that the need for funds wasn’t only about new equipment and audits. They cited regular IT support, additional training for staff, and stronger physical security of storage locations and polling places as priorities before the 2020 election. 

To read the full analysis, click here

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