What the Tech?!
October 23, 2020
Election Security Challenges
On Nov. 3, the nation will decide who will run the country for the next four years. At the forefront of this, as well as the last general election, is the security of our votes. In the era of cloud computing, distance learning, and many things having a presence on the Internet, what kind of security measures are in place to ensure that our votes are not altered?
In the months (or years) leading up to our general election there is an insurmountable amount of information that we see. One finding that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) indicates in its August 2020 report is that foreign actors directly seek to influence our election by spreading misinformation through social media sites.
Michigan was one of the places targeted heavily by this misinformation during the last election cycle. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center found clear evidence in 2018 that threat actors from other nations were distributing false information regarding polling locations and ballot measures. These threat actors even went as far as calling households claiming that when they go to vote their criminal record would be reviewed and they could be arrested for outstanding warrants. None of the information they provided was true.
Blatant misinformation is only one of the hazards we face in this election—there is growing evidence that some states will face challenges with the voting process itself.
During the 2016 election, there were nine states that solely used electronic voting systems. Despite reports from DHS, the voting machines were not secured from infiltration. While no explicit intrusions were reported, the potential of a compromised election led many states to change their voting systems. Now, 18 states, including Michigan, use paper ballots with the addition of direct recording equipment.
Paper ballots are more secure than electronic voting. The ballot is filled out by the voter, and then scanned into an optical scanning machine that will record the votes and store it in internal memory for later delivery to county election officials. The optical machines are not connected to the internet and would require direct tampering to modify the stored votes. This even holds true for mail-in ballots.
Oregon, Colorado, and Washington all use exclusive mail-in voting since 2000, 2006, and 2014 respectively.
In 2018, Michigan voters opted to allow for no-reason absentee ballots and mail-in ballots. With the pandemic still ravaging the nation, states have addressed the difficulties for the election differently.
According to an Aug. 14 New York Times article, nine states directly mailed ballots to all voters, 34 states are allowing absentee ballots for any voter that opts for it, and only seven states require that voters prove the need for absentee ballots this year. With the increased number of mail-in ballots, it poses difficulties for city and county clerks dealing with the process.
Traverse City clerk Benjamin Marentette addressed the increased workload in an interview with The Ticker on Oct. 7, stating, “We already have sent 300 percent more absentee ballots than four years ago.” The city clerk’s office has also hired three more full-time employees to help offset the increased workload. Marentette notes the integrity of elections from a system and IT standpoint. “Leading up to the election we do a test deck,” he said, referring to the tabulators and software used in their office, “a series of 75 ballots from each polling location… According to the Department of State regulations, we have to have 100 percent accuracy.”
In our nation, there is no de facto standard for what constitutes election security. Each state must come up with its own security plan for election day. And sometimes, there is comfort in the security of a low-tech solution. Remember to vote on Nov. 3.
David Hosler is an instructor in the CIT Infrastructure program at NMC.