Can Our Elections Ever Be Completely Secure?

Bruce deGrazia, University of Maryland Global Campus collegiate professor of cybersecurity management and policy, offered a historical look at the inner workings of voting systems and related cybersecurity challenges in U.S. election processes during the Oct. 19 session of the university’s Cybersecurity Awareness Month webinar series.

During his timely presentation, deGrazia, who is a former election judge in Chicago, said any system is vulnerable to corruption, hacking or irregularities that might compromise accuracy or security. “Current mark and scan systems require clear intention of the voter, ballot marking systems are only as good as the software that supports them, and we all know what happened with punch card systems and hanging chads after the 2000 election.”

He added that apart from apprehension about actual voting systems, hacking and disinformation related to candidates and parties also is of great concern. “Hacking mainly occurs on candidate and party websites,” said deGrazia.

These sites are vulnerable to denial of service attacks, site defacement and content altering. Most notably, perhaps, elections are vulnerable to disinformation campaigns—particularly on social media sites, according to deGrazia. “Popular with Russian hackers, these campaigns, which include online trolls and bot farms, are extensions of activities that have been going on for centuries,” he said.

How serious a problem is voting irregularities and disinformation campaigns? It depends deGrazia said on who you talk to.

“Each of the two main political parties has its own view on the severity of voting and election challenges, Additionally, each has its own view on whether we should have a single voting system in this country, which of course raises the issue of federal versus state responsibility,” he said.

Ultimately, today’s voting systems are computers, which present their own set of vulnerabilities. As the contestants at the hacking convention DEFCON have demonstrated repeatedly, highly skilled and sophisticated hackers can find their way into any system. “Voters may never be certain that a modern voting system can be trusted fully to generate a fool-proof result,” said deGrazia.

Ironically, today’s most reliable high-tech voting systems are the ones that utilize a low-tech back-up, ideally paper, as Maryland, Virginia and Washington do. “We’ve come a long way from the hanging chad of 20 years ago, but the perfect voting system still eludes us and maybe it always will,” deGrazia said.

“Your vote is probably safer and less prone to manipulation today than it was years ago, but we may always need a safeguard to ensure the security and accuracy of our votes.”