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Expert Brief

America’s Voting Machines at Risk – An Update

Despite manifold warnings about hacking for the past two years, the country has made remarkably little progress in replacing vulnerable voting machines — and has done even less to ensure that we can recover from a successful cyberattack against them.

The Bren­nan Center has found that despite mani­fold warn­ings about elec­tion hack­ing for the past two years, the coun­try has made remark­ably little progress since the 2016 elec­tion in repla­cing anti­quated, vulner­able voting machines — and has done even less to ensure that our coun­try can recover from a success­ful cyber­at­tack against those machines.

In Septem­ber 2015, the Bren­nan Center published Amer­ica’s Voting Machines at Risk, a compre­hens­ive report about Amer­ica’s outdated voting machines. That analysis detailed how these systems were often unaudit­able, suscept­ible to malware, frequently diffi­cult to repair, and more prone to fail­ure.[1]

Since then, the Director of National Intel­li­gence published a report detail­ing the ways in which Russia interfered in the 2016 elec­tion.[2] In recent weeks, top intel­li­gence offi­cials have cautioned that foreign actors — includ­ing not just Russia, but also North Korea and Iran — may look to launch cyber­at­tacks on this fall’s midterm elec­tions. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, and states and counties around the coun­try have taken import­ant steps in the last two years to secure our elec­tion infra­struc­ture.[3]

But in two crit­ical areas, the Bren­nan Center finds, the coun­try has been remark­ably slow to act: repla­cing voting machines most vulner­able to hack­ing, and mandat­ing post-elec­tion audits that would allow the coun­try to detect and recover from success­ful cyber­at­tacks against those machines.

  1. This year, most states will use compu­ter­ized voting machines that are at least 10 years old, and which elec­tion offi­cials say must be replaced before 2020.

While the lifespan of any elec­tronic voting machine varies, systems over a decade old are far more likely to need to be replaced, for both secur­ity and reli­ab­il­ity reas­ons. As machines age, essen­tial parts like memory cards and touch screens fail. Also, older machines are more likely to use outdated soft­ware like Windows 2000. Using obsol­ete soft­ware poses seri­ous secur­ity risks: vendors may no longer write secur­ity patches for it; juris­dic­tions cannot replace crit­ical hard­ware that is fail­ing because it is incom­pat­ible with their new, more secure hard­ware; and the soft­ware itself is vulner­able to cyber­at­tacks.[4]

Despite the urgent need to replace anti­quated equip­ment, and the grow­ing calls to do so over the last two years, most outdated systems have not been replaced. In 2016, juris­dic­tions in 44 states used voting machines that were at least a decade old. Elec­tion offi­cials in 31 of those states said they needed to replace that equip­ment by 2020.[5]

Two years later, little has changed. This year, 41 states will be using systems that are at least a decade old, and offi­cials in 33 say they must replace their machines by 2020. In most cases, elec­tions offi­cials do not yet have adequate funds to do so.[6]

It is crit­ical that these juris­dic­tions get fund­ing soon, so that they can begin to use them in 2019, rather than deploy­ing them during a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion year. “You want to imple­ment new systems in a year when poll work­ers won’t be so busy. Macy’s would­n’t roll out new cash registers on Black Friday,” Sherry Poland, Director of Elec­tions of Hamilton County, Ohio, told the Bren­nan Center.[7]

  1. Since 2016, only one state has replaced its paper­less elec­tronic voting machines statewide.

Secur­ity experts have long warned about the dangers of continu­ing to use paper­less elec­tronic voting machines.[8] These machines do not produce a paper record that can be reviewed by the voter, and they do not allow elec­tion offi­cials and the public to confirm elec­tronic vote totals. There­fore, votes cast on them could be lost or changed without notice. Moreover, if offi­cials discover that voting machine soft­ware has been corrup­ted or data has been lost, it may be impossible to recover the lost votes without a paper record.

While many paper­less systems were replaced in the years before the 2016 elec­tion, since then, the coun­try has made remark­ably little progress — even despite repeated warn­ings from intel­li­gence offi­cials and secur­ity experts that voter veri­fied paper records are a crit­ical back­stop against cyber­at­tacks.[9] In 2016, 14 states (Arkan­sas, Delaware, Geor­gia, Indi­ana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Caro­lina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) used paper­less elec­tronic machines as the primary polling place equip­ment in at least some counties and towns. Five of these states used paper­less machines statewide.[10]

By 2018 these numbers have barely changed: 13 states will still use paper­less voting machines, and 5 will continue to use such systems statewide. Only Virginia decer­ti­fied and replaced all of its paper­less systems.[11] In Pennsylvania, Acting Secret­ary of State Robert Torres direc­ted that all voting machines purchased in the state must employ “a voter-veri­fi­able paper ballot or paper record of votes cast,” but this applies only to new systems.[12] The state has not provided any money to replace its current paper­less machines.

  1. Only three states mandate post-elec­tion audits to provide a high-level of confid­ence in the accur­acy of the final vote tally.

Paper records of votes have limited value against a cyber­at­tack if they are not used to check the accur­acy of the soft­ware-gener­ated total to confirm that the vera­city of elec­tion results. In the last few years, stat­ist­i­cians, cyber­se­cur­ity profes­sion­als, and elec­tion experts have made substan­tial advances in devel­op­ing tech­niques to use post-elec­tion audits of voter veri­fied paper records to identify a computer error or fraud that could change the outcome of a contest. The Bren­nan Center and many other elec­tion integ­rity groups have recom­men­ded adop­tion of such tech­niques.[13]

Specific­ally, “risk limit­ing audits” — a process that employs stat­ist­ical models to consist­ently provide a high level of confid­ence in the accur­acy of the final vote tally – are now considered the “gold stand­ard” of post-elec­tion audits by experts.[14] Despite this fact, risk limit­ing audits are required in only three states: Color­ado, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.[15]

While 13 state legis­latures are currently consid­er­ing new post-elec­tion audit bills, since the 2016 elec­tion, only one — Rhode Island — has enacted a new risk limit­ing audit require­ment.[16]

  1. 43 states are using machines that are no longer manu­fac­tured.

The prob­lem of main­tain­ing secure and reli­able voting machines is partic­u­larly chal­len­ging in the many juris­dic­tions that use machines models that are no longer produced. In 2015, using data provided by Veri­fied Voting and inform­a­tion gathered from inter­views with voting machine vendors, the Bren­nan Center estim­ated that 43 states and the District of Columbia were using machines that are no longer manu­fac­tured. In 2018, that number has not changed.[17]

A primary chal­lenge of using machines no longer manu­fac­tured is find­ing replace­ment parts and the tech­ni­cians who can repair them. These diffi­culties make systems less reli­able and secure. Several elec­tion offi­cials have told the Bren­nan Center they scav­enge for spare parts on eBay,[18] and even there, many of the parts are no longer avail­able.

In a recent inter­view with the Bren­nan Center, Neal Kelley, regis­trar of voters for Orange County, Cali­for­nia, explained that after years of canni­bal­iz­ing old machines and hoard­ing spare parts, he is now forced to take systems out of service when they fail.[19] Ohio’s Sherry Poland told the Bren­nan Center she has been forced to replace her voting systems next year because she fears she can “no longer get replace­ment parts to get us through the next two years.”[20]

The Solu­tion: Congress Should Provide Grants to Replace Anti­quated, Paper­less Equip­ment and Conduct Post Elec­tion Audits to Detect Hack­ing or Error.

National secur­ity, legal and elec­tion experts agree: Congress must act to protect our elec­tions by provid­ing grants to states to replace equip­ment and conduct post-elec­tion audits. There are currently three bipar­tisan pieces of legis­la­tion being considered on Capitol Hill that would provide fund­ing and support for state elec­tion offi­cials. Such meas­ures would not just improve secur­ity – they would reaf­firm public faith in our elec­tions and our demo­cracy at large.

We believe there is a frame­work to secure our elec­tions … author­ize cost-shar­ing with states for the replace­ment of insec­ure elec­tronic systems with those that produce a voter-veri­fied phys­ical record… [and lay] the ground­work for states to regu­larly imple­ment risk-limit­ing audits — proced­ures that check a small random sample of paper records to quickly and afford­ably provide high assur­ance that an elec­tion outcome was correct.”

  • Michael Cher­toff and Grover Norquist, Wash­ing­ton Post, Febru­ary 14, 2018.

“More perni­cious would be attempts to hack into voter machines and change the results that they report. In some states, there is no paper backup or audit trail, just elec­tronic digits that record how people voted … If a cyber­at­tack is done well, there may be no evid­ence of the attack … Every voting machine must create a paper copy of each vote recor­ded, and those paper copies must be kept secured for at least a year.”

  • Richard Clarke, ABC News, Aug. 31, 2016.

 Congress should … require in federal elec­tions the use of paper ballots or elec­tronic voting machines that produce voter-veri­fied paper ballots… Before certi­fic­a­tion of final elec­tion results, a random sample of elec­tronic voting system totals should be compared with hand counts of the votes on the corres­pond­ing paper ballots to detect hack­ing or error.”

  •  Bruce Fein, The Wash­ing­ton Times, July 4, 2017.

Get back to the eleg­ant simpli­city that once defined Amer­ican elec­tions: plain old paper ballots, hardened cyber­se­cur­ity protec­tion … and inex­pens­ive auto­matic post-elec­tion vote audits in randomly selec­ted areas to scan for irreg­u­lar­it­ies.

  • Lt. Colonel Tony Shaf­fer (Ret.), The Hill, March 17, 2017
 

[1] Lawrence Norden and Chris­topher Famighetti, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Amer­ica’s Voting Machines at Risk (2015), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/public­a­tion/amer­icas-voting-machines-risk.

[2] Director of National Intel­li­gence, Back­ground to “Assess­ing Russian Activ­it­ies and Inten­tions in Recent US Elec­tions”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incid­ent Attri­bu­tion (Jan. 6, 2017), avail­able at https://www.dni.gov/files/docu­ments/ICA_2017_01.pdf.

[3] For instance, organ­iz­a­tions like the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion and the Belfer Center at Harvard Univer­sity have offered cyber­se­cur­ity train­ings to hundreds of state and local elec­tion offi­cials, while the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, the EAC, and state and local offi­cials have estab­lished a coordin­at­ing coun­cil to allow them to share threat inform­a­tion and pool secur­ity resources.

[4] See Alex Hern, WannaCry attacks prompt Microsoft to release Windows updates for older versions, The Guard­ian, June 14, 2017, https://www.theguard­ian.com/tech­no­logy/2017/jun/14/wannacry-attacks-prompt-microsoft-to-release-updates-for-older-windows-versions.

[5] See Wilfred Codring­ton III & Iris Zhang, Secure the Vote, Secure Our Demo­cracy, U.S. News & World Report, Feb. 23, 2018, avail­able at https://www.usnews.com/opin­ion/thomas-jeffer­son-street/articles/2018–02–23/congress-must-act-to-upgrade-and-secure-our-voting-machines-before-midterms. In 2015, the Bren­nan Center estim­ated that 44 states were using voting machines at least a decade old. Since 2015, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Rhode Island have alloc­ated money to replace old voting machines. Hawaii’s voting machines have since aged to a decade old. Survey of elec­tion offi­cials on file with author.

[6] States such as Delaware and Louisi­ana are consid­er­ing repla­cing their paper­less voting systems with updated tech­no­logy that provides voter-veri­fied paper ballots. Flor­ida Gov. Rick Scott has reques­ted fund­ing to bolster elec­tion systems secur­ity, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s admin­is­tra­tion has ordered that any new machines purchased have paper records. See Dani­elle Root et al., Center for Amer­ican Progress, Elec­tion Secur­ity in All 50 States (2018), avail­able at https://cdn.amer­ic­an­pro­gress.org/content/uploads/2018/02/11130702/020118_Elec­tion­Se­cur­ity-report1.pdf.

[7] See Tele­phone inter­view with Sherry Poland, Dir. of Elec­tions, Hamilton Cnty., Ohio (Feb. 7, 2018).

[8] See Lawrence Norden and Chris­topher Famighetti, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Amer­ica’s Voting Machines at Risk 13 (2015), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/public­a­tion/amer­icas-voting-machines-risk.

[9] See Zaid Jilani, Amid Elec­tion Secur­ity Worries, Suddenly Paper Ballots Are Making a Comeback, The Inter­cept, Feb. 18, 2018, https://thein­ter­cept.com/2018/02/18/paper-ballots-amidst-elec­tion-secur­ity-worries-suddenly-paper-ballots-are-making-a-comeback/.

[10] See Dani­elle Root et al., Center for Amer­ican Progress, Elec­tion Secur­ity in All 50 States (2018), avail­able at https://cdn.amer­ic­an­pro­gress.org/content/uploads/2018/02/11130702/020118_Elec­tion­Se­cur­ity-report1.pdf; The Veri­fier –Polling Place Equip­ment – Novem­ber 2018, Veri­fied Voting, https://www.veri­fied­vot­ing.org/veri­fier/ (last visited Mar. 6, 2018). Delaware, Geor­gia, Louisi­ana, New Jersey, and South Caro­lina use paper­less DRE machines statewide.

[11] On Feb. 9th, Pennsylvani­a’s Acting Secret­ary of State Robert Torres direc­ted that all voting machines purchased in the state must employ “a voter-veri­fi­able paper ballot or paper record of votes cast,” but this applies only to new systems. The state has not provided any money to replace its current paper­less machines. See Pa. Dep’t of State, DOS Direct­ive Concern­ing the Purchase of Elec­tronic Voting Systems (Feb. 9, 2018), avail­able at http://www.dos.pa.gov/VotingElec­tions/OtherSer­vice­sEv­ents/Docu­ments/DOS%20Dir­ect­ive%20Con­cern­ing%20Pur­chase%20of%20Vot­ing%20Sys­tems_02.09.2018.pdf.

[12] See Pa. Dep’t of State, DOS Direct­ive Concern­ing the Purchase of Elec­tronic Voting Systems (Feb. 9, 2018), avail­able at http://www.dos.pa.gov/VotingElec­tions/OtherSer­vice­sEv­ents/Docu­ments/DOS%20Dir­ect­ive%20Con­cern­ing%20Pur­chase%20of%20Vot­ing%20Sys­tems_02.09.2018.pdf.

[13] See Lawrence Norden and Chris­topher Famighetti, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Amer­ica’s Voting Machines at Risk 32 (2015), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/public­a­tion/amer­icas-voting-machines-risk; Mark Linde­man & Philip B. Stark, A Gentle Intro­duc­tion to Risk-Limit­ing Audits (2012), avail­able at https://www.stat.berke­ley.edu/~stark/Preprints/gentle12.pdf; Prin­ciples and Best Prac­tices for Post-Elec­tion Audits, Elec­tionAudits.org (Sep. 2008), http://elec­tionaudits.org/files/best­prac­ticesfinal_0.pdf.

[14] See Post Elec­tion Audits, Veri­fied Voting, avail­able at https://www.eac.gov/assets/1/28/Veri­fied­Vot­ing-Post-Elec­tion-Audits.pdf; Am. stat­ist­ical ass’n, state­ment on risk limit­ing post-elec­tion audits (2010), avail­able at https://www.amstat.org/asa/files/pdfs/POL-Risk-Limit­ing_Endorse­ment.pdf.

[15] See Dani­elle Root et al., Center for Amer­ican Progress, Elec­tion Secur­ity in All 50 States (2018), avail­able at https://cdn.amer­ic­an­pro­gress.org/content/uploads/2018/02/11130702/020118_Elec­tion­Se­cur­ity-report1.pdf.

[16] National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures, 2011–2018 Elec­tions Legis­la­tion Data­base, avail­able at http://www.ncsl.org/research/elec­tions-and-campaigns/elec­tions-legis­la­tion-data­base.aspx.

[17] The Bren­nan Center confirmed with two major vendors – ES&S and Domin­ion – that the follow­ing models are no longer manu­fac­tured: iVotronic, M100, M650, Auto­Mark (ES&S); Accu­Vote OS, Accu­Vote OSX, Accu­Vote TS, Accu­Vote TSX, AVC Edge, AVC Advant­age, Optech IIIP-Eagle and Optech Insight (Domin­ion). We used this inform­a­tion to confirm that 9 states are using exclus­ively discon­tin­ued voting machines, 34 states use discon­tin­ued voting machines in one or more juris­dic­tions, and 7 states and the District of Columbia use machines that are all currently manu­fac­tured. Since the Bren­nan Center’s 2015 analysis, Michigan and Nevada have upgraded in all juris­dic­tions to machines that are currently manu­fac­tured; the Auto­Mark machine, used in some juris­dic­tions in New York, has been discon­tin­ued; the Model 650 machine, used in some juris­dic­tions in Oregon, has been discon­tin­ued; and Utah and Rhode Island have upgraded voting equip­ment in some juris­dic­tions. See Tele­phone Inter­view with Kay Stim­son, Vice Pres­id­ent of Gov’t Affairs, Domin­ion Voting Systems (Feb. 28, 2016); E-mail from Kathy Rogers, Senior Vice Pres­id­ent of Gov’t Rela­tions, ES&S (Feb. 27, 2018, 11:22 EST) (on file with author); The Veri­fier –Polling Place Equip­ment – Novem­ber 2018, Veri­fied Voting, https://www.veri­fied­vot­ing.org/veri­fier/ (last visited Mar. 6, 2018); Lawrence Norden and Chris­topher Famighetti, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Amer­ica’s Voting Machines at Risk 50 (2015), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/public­a­tion/amer­icas-voting-machines-risk.

[18] See Lawrence Norden and Chris­topher Famighetti, Bren­nan Ctr. for Justice, Amer­ica’s Voting Machines at Risk (2015), avail­able at https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/public­a­tion/amer­icas-voting-machines-risk.

[19] See Tele­phone inter­view with Neal Kelley, Regis­trar of Voting, Orange Cnty., Cal. (Feb. 5, 2018).

[20] Tele­phone inter­view with Sherry Poland, Dir. of Elec­tions, Hamilton Cnty., Ohio (Feb. 7, 2018).

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.