I've been thinking quite a bit about electronic voting machines recently, including debate on a recent vine about the security of electronic voting machines, and past musings where I lament the fact that a poll worker got into trouble by questioning the machines. In that previous article I spoke about the need for paper confirmation, and after some more thought I feel even more strongly about this. I have a new argument for paper receipts: election terrorism.
Most advocates of paper-trail voting machines cite possible election fraud where a savvy candidate might have the election "fixed" through various electronic means. This could vary anywhere between actual tampering of the software before it is loaded onto the device, or as one recent online video showed, tampering with the device in the actual voting booth to alter the results. Other discussions focused around the manipulation of the mechanism to deliver the votes to the central counting system, so that the votes are swapped when being transferred, or are altered at the collection point.
All of these discussions that I've seen focused on one fact: a candidate trying to cheat the system and come into power. What if the "attackers" were trying to throw the national voting system into chaos through an act of "election terrorism"? Instead of ramming planes into buildings and killing several thousand people, the attackers could poison our very democracy in a profound way by simply increasing doubt in the system.
Now I know very little about what exact technology exists inside one of these voting machines, though being a software developer and having worked with computers my entire life I have a pretty good idea. The machines will have a screen, various buttons, electronic components such as chips, resistors, transistors and capacitors, and some sort of memory storage device that encrypts and stores the actual votes. A smart attacker could likely figure out how to do any of the following:
- Use the tactics we've already been hearing about and change the actual software. Imagine if one third of the voting machines in a state, or across several states all reported 75% of the votes for Mickey Mouse or worse, Osama Bin Laden?
- Physically damage the machine's electronics. For many machines, this requires nothing more than a screwdriver. These machines would be caught fairly quickly when the next person stepped up to vote, but again, if done on a large scale and late in the voting day, it would cause large amounts of voter confusion and conspiracy theories.
- Alter the electronics in a machine, possibly by just damaging certain components or by using a strong electro-magnet, so that no votes are actually stored on the cards. I'm unclear about the process for confirming that votes are being stored properly on the media throughout the day, but say one-third of all voting machines in a large city like New York or San Francisco were suddenly blank when they went to collect the votes.
- Again, this requires access to the software, but a terrorist could drop a virus onto the device that could affect the central computers. This worries me the least, because it would require quite a bit of knowledge about many different types of systems used across a large area, but then again Al Qaeda infiltrated the Army so its safe to assume they could infiltrate Diebold, MicroVote or a similar company.
- If the machines have tamper proof seals on them, someone would merely need to break the seals on a good percentage of machines in random locations, then call attention to the problem at the end of the day.
Most of these attacks, to have any large "scare" effect would need to be coordinated over a geographic area and either be perpetrated over the course of the day by a small group of attackers (which increases their likely-hood of being caught) or at the end of the day by a large group of attackers. A large group makes it difficult to keep secret and makes it easier to track down, but with the majority of our intelligence capability looking for destructive attacks, something like voting machine manipulation might slip under the radar. Furthermore, combining the attack with proper "media direction" would likely make even a small attack appear much larger and cause more doubt amongst the voters. These terrorists would also require valid identification in most states, but this could easily be faked or several poll workers on the "inside" could allow access.
My larger fear is that once the attack was detected, what would the Government's response be? If there are no paper backups of each vote, a manual recount is impossible and potentially large numbers of votes would need to be invalidated. If this were to happen during a national election, the firestorm would be enormous, especially after the debacle of 2000. If the damage was obvious, then those precincts that had invalid machines could "re-vote" but at great expense and, in a close election, under great suspicion. If the damage is not obvious, and the affected precincts could not be determined, and there were no paper rereceiptso count, we would likely have to hold another election. This election would likely take several months to put together, and possibly cause a crisis if, during a national election, the new President could not be determined before January 20th.
Worse still would be the damage to the system as a whole. As we're already starting to see, doubt about the voting system will cause more challenges, more conspiracy theories, more litigation and so on. Unchecked, this could snowball into a larger crisis where the citizenry no longer trust the system and refuse to vote or cause mass demonstrations, such as were seen in the Ukraine with the Orange Revolution, or riots to effect change.
No voting system is 100% perfect. But there are very, very simple measures we can take to ensure that we at the very least have a paper backup that we can trust in case of an emergency. Many people who own computers backup their important photos, documents, and tax returns on a regular basis in case of computer failure. Why can't we backup our democracy with a little slip of paper?