The question on the mind of many voting security experts is not whether hackers could disrupt a U.S. election. Instead, they wonder how likely an election hack might be and how it might happen.
The good news is a hack that changes the outcome of a U.S. presidential election would be difficult, although not impossible. First of all, there are technology challenges -- more than 20 voting technologies are used across the country, including a half dozen electronic voting machine models and several optical scanners, in addition to hand-counted paper ballots.
But the major difficulty of hacking an election is less a technological challenge than an organizational one, with hackers needing to marshal and manage the resources needed to pull it off, election security experts say. And a handful of conditions would need to fall into place for an election hack to work.
Many U.S. voting systems still have vulnerabilities, and many states use statistically unsound election auditing practices, said Joe Kiniry, a long-time election security researcher.
"With enough money and resources, I don't think [hacking the election] is actually a technical challenge," said Kiniry, now CEO and chief scientist at Free and Fair, an election technology developer. "It’s a social, a political, and an infrastructural challenge because you'd have a medium-sized conspiracy to achieve such a goal. Technically, it’s not rocket science."
Kiniry, in an interview earlier this year, called the U.S. voting system "ripe for manipulation," fueled by a divided nation. "The state of the infrastructure is terrible, and we have a terrible political climate and a lot of money sloshing around," he said.
Still, a couple of conditions would need to be in place for hackers to change the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.
First, hackers would need a tight national election where hacking the results of one or two swing states could change the results.
Remember, the U.S. president isn't elected by the national popular vote, but through the Electoral College, where each state gets a number of votes based on its population.
The bad news is the current presidential campaign is shaping up to be a tight race, with Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton running neck-in-neck in more than a dozen states as of late September.
This year's race may mirror the razor-thin 2000 and 2004 victories by Republican George W. Bush. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote, but Bush won Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes in a squeaker, leading to an Electoral College victory of 271 to 267.
In 2004, had Democrat John Kerry won Florida or Ohio, he would've been elected president instead of Bush.
The good news is that there's still time for one candidate to pull away and allay fears of a hacked election. And many recent elections haven't been close enough to raise concerns.
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