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If the election is hacked, we may never know

Patrick Thibodeau | Oct. 6, 2016
Even if someone figures out that the voting machine firmware has been changed, the votes may need to be tossed

Lopresti can't explain Pennsylvania's decision to stick with touch-screen systems without paper verification. "They tended to believe that some of us were putting forth doomsday stories," he said, and they trusted the technology, he said.

Pennsylvania officials may have worried nonetheless.

On Feb. 2, 2015, two weeks before the voters lost their final appeal in their case, the state appointed Marian Schneider, one of the attorneys representing the voters in their lawsuit, to the post of secretary for elections and administration with oversight for elections and IT systems.

Michael Churchill, an attorney who also represented the plaintiffs, said there has been no change in Pennsylvania, since the court case, in the use of electronic voting machines without paper backup. "However there is much more attention to security issues," he said, in an email. (State election officials didn't respond by press time to questions about security from Computerworld.) But will this extra attention be enough?

Following the 2011 municipal primary, officials in Venango County, Pa., had concerns about the vote, including a tie in one race. David Eckhardt, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is also a Judge of Elections at one polling place, and was asked by the county to examine the iVotronic voting terminals and Unity tabulation software made by Election Systems & Software, Inc.

Eckhardt didn't find positive evidence of tampering, but did find "positive evidence of IT practices which were imprudent enough to theoretically provide a wide enough door for a well-equipped, motivated attacker to have tampered with the election." His report included a recommendation for an "explicit written security protocol governing the practices of Election staff."

Most county governments are better prepared to safeguard boxes of paper ballots than to safeguard boxes of flash memory," said Eckhardt.

In the absence of voter-verified paper records, getting at the truth of a vote will be difficult.

Cynthia and Ernest Zirkle ran for the Democratic County Committee of Fairfield Township, N.J, in June 2011. It was a very small election, with fewer than 100 votes.

This election used one electronic, touch-screen voting machine with no paper copies of the individual votes. Ms. Zirkle and her husband lost the election. But she knew the results were wrong, because she had a good idea about who had voted for her. Proving it took work.

"There was no verifiable paper trail, or back-up paper to see if the names were reversed," said Ms. Zirkle, in an interview. What she suspected was true: The votes that the Zirkles should have received went to their opponents.

The ballots were programmed incorrectly -- and testing prior to the election missed the problem. Consequently, Ms. Zirkle gathered affidavits from people who said they had voted for them. This was used to help convince a judge to order a new election. The Zirkles easily won their new election.


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