Experts Reassure House|on Voting Technology

     WASHINGTON — With only 55 days remaining until all votes are cast for this year’s presidential election, the federal government is anxious to allay concerns over possible security breaches, foreign hacks and problems with aging voting machines.
     The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a two-hour long hearing Tuesday, tapping the pulse of state department representatives, members of the Center for Election Innovation and a research and computer science professor about the integrity of this year’s election process.
     All confirmed that, although the potential for unknown problems exists, citizens should not be especially worried.
     Tom Schedler, Louisiana’s secretary of state, said the panic over vote tampering is unwarranted for a simple reason: voting machines are not connected to the Internet while in use.
     “I speak plainly, but I want to make it clear. It’s real hard to hack something that isn’t on the Internet,” Schedler told committee members. “None of the machines are linked together. They all have separate cartridges [that record their own data]. My bigger concern would be something of a physical nature, but as far as a cyberattack, the risk is very low.”
     The information about how voting machines actually function was new to some committee members.
     Schedler clarified the process.
     “Each machine has a separate cartridge,” he said. “That cartridge is retrieved, it is taken to a clerk of a court or central location in that county, and the cartridge is put into a secure laptop. The information is transmitted on a closed circuit line, not the Internet.”
     Even the tape on a voting machine can be replicated if challenged, according to Schedler.
     “I can’t tell you how you personally voted [if I look at that tape], but I can tell if you did vote and we can reconcile that vote,” Schedler added.
     Dr. Charles Romine, director of the Information Technology Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said vote reconciliation and auditing mandates passed in the Help America Vote Act of 2002 have worked wonders for the sanctity of U.S. elections on every level.
     “That legislation has improved our focus,” Romine said. “My organization has worked with election assistance commissions all around the country, and we have provided the best guidance possible to states and municipalities.”
     “We’re partnering with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to try to understand how we can assure the widest dissemination of best practices,” Romine added.
     David Becker, Executive Director for the Center for Election Innovation and Research, believes successfully orchestrating an attack on voting machines is simply too complex a task to be mastered by even the most skilled hackers with access to premier technology.
     “If a hacker wanted access without the Internet, there are four points you would have to consider,” Becker said. “That person would face issues with multiple points of access at voting centers all over the country. And of course voting machines are under lock and key. And unlike voter database systems, again, the machines are not connected to the Internet. It would take tens of thousands of conspirators to defeat [the system].”
     “Even if you did have tens of thousands of conspirators, it would have no effect because well over 75 percent of people vote on paper ballots, and post-election audit requirements [enacted by HAVA] must match paper ballots,” he concluded.
     Becker also made a point of mentioning that every state creates its own backup of voter rolls.
     “Most states do it on a daily basis,” he said. “Should anything go wrong, lists can be reconstructed.”
     The hearing also highlighted a much-needed delineation between tabulated voting rolls and voter database systems. The concern, spurred by hacks into the Democratic National Convention’s email server made public in July, as well as earlier claims that the primary voting process faced interference in Arizona and Illinois, were the driving factors behind misplaced confusion over voting machine security, witnesses said.
     A voter registration database, like the one that was hacked at the DNC, is akin to a “campaign commercial list” Schedler said. Since all of that voter information is online and at the ready, the components in that hack “are vastly different than the component[s] of election day equipment.”
     “No one is minimizing what happened at the DNC …” Schedler said. “If a component goes down, a hack may occur and cause a delay. But it doesn’t create a nuclear war. There’s no such thing as a perfect election system … but I’m very confident in it, with the caution lights on.”
     Schedler also said that further discussion over voter security on election day should be squashed.
     “We went through a chaotic convention process where voters were more disgruntled than ever. We are adding to that participation rate in a very negative fashion [when we talk about it], and I feel very comfortable in saying that I speak for all of my department colleagues when I say we are deeply concerned about all of the attention from the national press on this … we’re not trying to minimize it, but there’s little that can be done in eight weeks,” Schedler said.
     “I’m confident that on November 9, however, you’re going to have unofficial results of who won the presidency. It’s unofficial because we go through every county, every parish, every state before it’s made official and your votes go to the electoral college,” he added.
     The federal government has not yet designated the country’s voting apparatuses as part of its “critical infrastructure” sectors, and none of the witnesses thought it prudent to designate them as such.
     Currently, the Department of Homeland Security monitors — and actively works to deter the “incapacitation or destruction” — of 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including communications, manufacturing and energy, among others.
     The witnesses present dismissed the idea of putting voting review or security processes in the hands of a centralized authority.
     “I don’t think we need that,” Schedler said. “The constitution says very vividly that it is up to each state to decide the time and place and matter of its election. To put the national election on par with the banking system or the electrical grid is way overreach and unnecessary, and we can accomplish the same goals if we keep on the same path we’re on now.”
     Though outdated machines and aging technology issues persist, the committee confirmed the availability of $396 million to replace old machines and support other relevant technology in each state.
     Dr. Dan Wallach, who manages the computer security lab at Rice University, gave a short and honest response when asked how the funds should be allocated.
     “I’m not sure if we could do it on a shoestring budget,” he said, “but we could certainly spend more money on this and do it properly.”

%d bloggers like this: