Can the Election Be Hacked?

Jesse Roberts
Aug 27, 2020 2:15:00 PM

The presidential election is less than three months away and questions revolving around the overall security of the electoral process should be on everyone’s mind. Let us discuss some areas that may be susceptible to hacking. I will be assigning a threat level based on my own professional opinion and analysis at the end of each area.

Voter Registration Databases

Voter registration databases are not standard throughout the United States. Each state has a different method of implementing these databases. In addition, individual cities, towns, and counties maintain their own methods for tracking as well. Some of the data that is typically collected in a voter registration database includes but it not limited to the following:

  • Full name
  • Phone number
  • Physical addresses
  • Party affiliation
  • Voting history (not who you voted for; only who is registered to vote and who has cast ballots in past elections)

Again, the above can vary, it all really depends on how the systems are implemented. We know that the state of Illinois suffered a breach of their state’s voter database in June of 2016 and that 76,000 voters’ records were viewed. While this is certainly a privacy concern, getting access to voter records does not necessarily constitute a hack of a person’s vote. What is concerning and a very real threat is that if a bad actor were able to manipulate a voter database, it could cause chaos at a polling place, making it harder for a registered voter to place their vote. Manipulating information in a voter database could lead to last-minute altering of voters’ addresses or polling locations, causing unexpected surges or delays at certain voting locations.

Threat to the integrity of the election process: Low

Voting/Ballot Machines

This is where the actual magic happens come voting day. A user who is registered to vote in the aforementioned database for their respective state/county arrives at their designated polling place. The voter goes through the process and is then able to walk in and cast their vote on some type of machine. One of the biggest concerns with the voting machines are the introduction of direct-recording electronic (DRE) systems in some states. Nationally, it is estimated that 13.9% of the machines are using a DRE system. Critics of these systems claim that there is no auditable process to ensure accuracy of results because there is no paper trail. Others claim that hackers can manipulate the machines so that counts become inaccurate. While there have been cases of hackers being able to “hack” the machines in a controlled environment, there have been no proven breaches using any DRE machines. Furthermore, the hackers were only able to manipulate data after being given unconditional access to the DRE machines or a supporting piece of hardware.

Threat to the integrity of the election process: Low

Voter Manipulation

This is probably the area of the vote that is the most vulnerable. Propaganda has been around for centuries. However, the rise of social media in the last 15 years has led to a surge of information that is easily distributed with no way to fact check sources. The spread of misinformation on social media can sway public opinion just as easily as debates and news media. This misinformation is often being amplified by the increased use of social media bots by the thousands, all being controlled by an individual or group of people. These armies of bots are used to post, like, and share information en masse to support a political party. Following the 2016 election, Twitter identified 50,258 automated accounts that were Russian-linked and Tweeting election-related content during the election period.

We also know that hackers will use stolen information in attempts to sway the opinions of voters. Many will recall the 2016 breach of John Podesta’s (Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager) email account via a spear-phishing attack by Russian hackers. These leaked emails were used in an attempt to sway public opinion against Hillary Clinton. However, hacking an individual’s email and/or spreading misinformation via different media channels does not equate to our electoral process being compromised.

Threat to the integrity of the election process: Medium

In conclusion, there is not a lot of compelling evidence that shows that our electoral process can be hacked. It appears that the biggest threat is the spread of misinformation and manipulation, resulting in an uninformed voter not knowing the facts about a given candidate.

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