Voter registries at risk of cyberattack, experts say


In light of last month’s large-scale cyberattck on internet infrastructure – as well as previous DNC email hacking that U.S. intelligence officials believe to be instigated by Russia – two top election technology experts are warning about the potential for further disruption on Election Day. Specifically, they call for election officials to have back-up voter registration documentation in paper form ready on Nov. 8. Their warnings came in interviews with, and are expected to be repeated during a teleconference with media representatives today, a week before the election.

“The most vulnerable part of the entire election system is the threat to voter registration databases,” according to Candice Hoke, Marshall College of Law professor and a widely recognized national authority on laws governing election technologies, including voting devices and voter registration databases. Hoke said another internet disruption, such as the dedicated denial of service attack (DDOS) that occurred on Oct. 21, could eliminate voter names from any registry in a specific precinct, preventing those voters from casting their ballots normally or forcing them to use provisional ballots.

“Have a back-up plan. Don’t rely on the internet or local laptops for running the election,” Professor Douglas W. Jones, said in discussing the vulnerability of elections at the local and state level. Jones agrees there are real possibilities for serious disruption if hackers target centralized voter-registration databases. Such targeting might have already happened, Jones said, but there is no way to know about it in advance or to prove it. On a widespread scale, he added, the potential effects could be “destabilizing the government or delegitimizing the presidency,” although he doesn’t think such targeting would change the outcome of the election.

An attack on voter-registration databases, Jones said, could drastically slow down voting, lead to much longer lines for voters, and require provisional ballots that may or may not be counted.  Jones is a computer scientist at the University of Iowa where his research focuses primarily on computer security, particularly electronic voting. Together with Barbara Simons, another election expert on electronic voting, Jones has co-authored a book entitled Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?

Both Hoke and Jones also say hackers may be able to target election software while it is being updated, which could lead to vote “flipping” – causing the tally for one candidate to suddenly becomes the vote total being counted for another candidate under the direction of pirate software. There is no way to prove such a flip took place without a paper trail, which many voting locations no longer have.

Jones believes Russia has both the motivation and capability to disrupt the American election by creating chaos through disrupting the internet or with email leaks via WikiLeaks – allowing them to inject their own partisanship, weighing in on one side of the election. However, he said, it takes many weeks of computer forensics to prove that they are the culprits.

According to a report on CNN quoting the Department of Homeland Security, 46 states have asked DHS for assistance to bolster their election systems against cyber threats. “As rhetoric has swirled that next week’s election could be ‘rigged,’ and as the U.S. government has publicly accused the Russian government of meddling in the election by hacking Democratic political groups, concerns about attempted cyberattacks on election infrastructure have increased,” the CNN report said. Despite the charges of “rigging” the election, most experts believe it would be extremely difficult to alter or affect the outcome of national elections.

Former Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov does not believe the American election will be rigged the way the Russia’s Vladimir Putin rigs that country’s election. But Kasparov does believe the Russians may seek to disrupt the U.S. election, just as they hacked into the email systems of the Democratic National Committee, in an effort to discredit American democracy. He believes the DDOS cyberattack last month might have been a dress rehearsal for Election Day.

Kasparov will be a third panelist on the Tuesday teleconference. He is chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and author of Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.

Professor Candice Hoke founded and directed the Center for Election Integrity, and served three terms on the American Bar Association’s Advisory Commission on Election Law.  Professor Douglas W. Jones has testified before the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the United States House Committee on Science and the Federal Election Commission on voting issues. Jones was the technical advisor for HBO’s documentary on electronic voting machine issues, Hacking Democracy.

Additional sources noted inline. Photo via Creative Commons

Related reading: “Issues and recommendations for Making Elections More Secure” by Barbara Simons, David Jefferson, Philip B. Stark