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5 ways to improve voting security in the US

Grant Gross | Oct. 6, 2016
Voting officials can pump up their audits and hire white-hat hackers

With the U.S. presidential election just weeks away, questions about election security continue to dog the nation's voting system. 

It's too late for election officials to make major improvements, "and there are no resources," said Joe Kiniry, a long-time election security researcher.

However, officials can take several steps for upcoming elections, security experts say.

"Nobody should ever imagine changing the voting technology used this close to a general election," said Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa. "The best time to buy new equipment would be in January after a general election, so you've got almost two years to learn how to use it."

Stop using touchscreen electronic voting machines without printers

Fifteen states still use outdated touchscreen e-voting machines without printers attached in some or all of their voting precincts. E-voting machines without paper printouts don't give election officials a way to audit their internal vote counts, voting security critics say.

Many security experts say these e-voting machines, often called direct-recording electronic machines or DREs, still have several points of vulnerability. Jones, who has researched their security, has called on all DREs to be phased out, even the ones with attached printers. But it needs to be an "orderly" transition, he said.

"Don't declare an emergency and require everyone to buy new equipment right now," he said by email. "Doing that just creates a feeding frenzy among the manufacturers and leads to inflated prices, along with all the other problems that occur when people make important decisions under pressure."

DREs rose to prominence after the hanging-chad controversy in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, but the use of paperless DREs has fallen from 23 states in 2008 to 15 in the upcoming election.

The problem for states is the cost of replacing thousands of DREs. Congress allocated money for new election technology following the debacle in Florida in 2000, but money has been tight since then.

Conduct more extensive pre-election voting machine tests

Some states conduct extensive pre-election tests of their voting equipment, but other tests are less comprehensive, said Pamela Smith, president of elections security advocacy group Verified Voting.

Most jurisdictions conduct pre-election voting tests, but many "randomly select some machines" after ballot information, such as candidates' names, is programmed in, Smith said. Testing all voting machines before an election would be more secure, she said.

Iowa's Jones discounted current pre-election testing in many jurisdictions. The testing usually doesn't involve security checks, but only a brief test of "only a few ballots per machine … long before election day," he said.

So, if hackers find a way to load malware onto voting machines, "the malware can easily distinguish between testing and a real election," he added. 


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