From the earliest democracies, voters have suspected governments of vote tampering, and the current presidential election is certainly no exception. Doubts range from fraudulent voter registrations to incompetent administration to falsified vote tallies.
Public concern has been especially intense this year due to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's claim that the presidential race has been rigged. Trump's fears play into the angst fostered by the recent rise in computer hacking. Social media, for its part, has brought perceived problems to light faster than before.
It comes as no surprise that fewer than half (43 percent) of the public said they have a great deal of confidence that their vote will be counted accurately, according to the Public Religion Research Institute 2016 American Values Survey.
Voting machines age
The condition of the nation’s voting machines doesn't make voters more confident.
In January 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration reported there is an impending crisis from the widespread wearing out of 10-year-old voting machines. Jurisdictions do not have the funds to purchase new machines.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has stepped forward to provide assistance to 46 states and 35 counties and local election agencies in the run-up to the presidential election, according to United Press International. The department has urged states and counties to avail themselves of security assistance to ensure voter data is protected from hackers, specifically Russian-linked groups that have reportedly targeted Democratic groups.
So far, only a handful of states have experienced instances of election-related hacking, according to ABC News, although nearly half of the states have experienced some type of attempted cyber intrusion.
Equipment makers: concerns are overblown
Despite public skepticism, voting equipment manufacturers and software providers interviewed by KioskMarketplace claim the machines are reliable and hacking is highly unlikely. They claim the government has enacted strict certification requirements that machines must meet before they are deployed to polling stations.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 established the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of federal elections. The law requires EAC to provide certification, decertification, and recertification of voting systems and the accreditation of testing laboratories.
While there have been some reported problems with voting machines during the current election, investigations have found they were mostly due to user error.
After social media posts in Texas and Georgia claimed voting machines switched votes from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, local officials denied any mechanical rigging and said the problems were due to human error, according to Independent Law Review.
"Every machine before the election goes through a logic and accuracy test, where it is tested against a known result," Larry Moore, CEO of Clear Ballot Group, a voting machine manufacturer, told KioskMarketplace. "If there is any discrepancy at all, it's taken out of service."
"Nothing's impossible, but it is very, very unlikely that it (hacking) can be done on a widespread basis," he said.
Massive hacking doubted
When you consider the thousands of organizations involved in conducting elections nationwide, "the concept of somebody somehow controlling that distributive of a system is very difficult to wrap one's head around," said Bruce Krochman, general manager at DFM Associates, an elections management software provider. "I have an extremely high level of confidence in the people that conduct elections."
"Our (DFM) system does not require, nor does it provide services to the internet directly," Krochman said. "Any internet activities would typically be done through some customer designed implementation. They’re so closely managed and monitored by the elections officials."
Krochman, a 30-year elections veteran, said malicious elections tampering is possible, but he is not aware of any such instance.
How easy is physical tampering?
Just how easy is it to physically tamper with a voting machine?
In testimony to a House of Representatives Technology Committee in September, Andrew Appel, a Princeton computer professor and election specialist, claimed that installing a vote stealing software program in a voting machine takes seven minutes using a screwdriver, a feat he claimed he demonstrated in a New Jersey court room, according to who.what.why.org.
Ryan Godfrey, a software product manager and a Philadelphia elections inspector, recently offered a different assessment on how easy such a task would be.
Someone with access to a machine's motherboard and logic chips could theoretically change the hardware, Godfrey wrote in a Vox Media article. But they would have to gain interior access to every machine they wanted to change. The machines cannot be networked; there is no chance of infecting one with a virus and having that code spread to any other machine.
Voting technology evolves
Equipment manufacturers point out that new technology is available to replace aging machines, although they recognize a lack of funding has stymied replacements.
One frequently cited concern is the absence of paper ballots to verify the results of the direct recording electronic systems that emerged after the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
The DRE machines, which were supposed to improve reliability, have no paper ballots. Without a paper trail, the only way to check a tally is through exit polling.
DREs were one of two technologies that emerged after the Help America Vote Act delivered $3.8 billion to replace punch card machines, said Moore of Clear Ballot Group. The other technology was optical scan paper ballots.
Concerns over the auditability of DREs, valid or not, are causing some states to replace those systems with optical scan paper ballots, the latter of which provide a paper audit.
Optical scan systems increase
"The concerns around DREs are auditability and cost,” Moore said. "It is necessary to have one DRE machine for each person voting at a time. With an optical scan paper ballot system, it is possible to have just one or two machines per polling location, with numerous privacy booths where voters scan their ballots."
The optical scan paper ballot machine returns the completed ballot to the voter, who then hands it to an election official. Special purpose scanners are required. The optical scan paper ballot system prevents long waiting lines.
"The technology on optical scan paper ballots has gotten better, but it still leaves open the issue of the voter imperfectly marking the ballot," Moore said. "In the case where the voter marks more than the allowable number of choices, the precinct scanner will return the ballot where it can be exchanged for a new one."
"These voter-facing devices remain in a state of flux," Moore said. "The big concern is, can they be audited, and some sort of paper record is the prevailing method of doing that."
Blockchain technology emerges
Blockchain technology, a software technology that major financial institutions are exploring because of its improved efficiency and transparency, also offers to improve voting transparency, according to a story on Kiosk Marketplace.
Blockchain Technologies Corp., a blockchain technology firm, is currently working on a blockchain voting machine that it claims will be tamper-resistant.
Paper ballots feed through a scanner which records voters’ choices. The scanned data, along with a hash of the ballot’s image, then uploads to the blockchain to safeguard it from tampering. The blockchain creates a permanent, immutable record.
Nick Spanos, Blockchain Technologies CEO, said his patented blockchain-based voting solution has not been government certified yet. The solution has been used for union, municipal, corporate and condominium elections.
When reminded that blockchains exist on the internet, which is vulnerable to hacking, Spanos responded that no one has ever hacked the bitcoin blockchain. "We still have the paper ballots, too," he noted.
Skepticism's real cost
While the public is anxious about voting security, what gets less attention is the price it has already paid for revamping machines.
When a study revealed flaws in electronic voting machines in California in 2007, then Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified all the machines and then recertified them for use in the 2008 presidential primary election, according to Political Blotter. Despite the $450 million investment, some government and voting equipment manufacturers questioned any benefit from the recertification.
Public officials generally concur with election equipment vendors on the reliability and integrity of voting machines. Their assurances, however, are unlikely to erase suspicions in the current political climate.
Elliot Maras / Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.