What are we doing to make sure our election isn’t hacked?

Paper Ballot Voting

Across the country, millions of people will go to the polls to vote in the mid-term elections on November 6.

A Department of Homeland Security official says Russian hackers are a potential threat in all 50 states during this election.

It’s a major concern—considering what we know about hacking attempts in the 2016 election.

Outside the Red Cat Coffee House in downtown Birmingham, Lizzie Little is concerned about the possibility of Russians hacking our elections.

“I’m very concerned,” Little says. “I’m hoping that we have enough tech savvy people who are moderating it to make sure there are things in measure to keep it from being hacked.”

Russian hacking attempts in 2016

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Russian government hackers targeted 21 states during the run up to the 2016 presidential election. The Associated Press identified those states, which include Alabama.

State officials say Russian government hackers looked for vulnerabilities on the Alabama Secretary of State’s website. They didn’t break in. But now, website security is much tighter. And communication between federal and state governments is much better.

A concern that e-poll books could be hacked

A Homeland Security official says there’s a concern that e-poll books could be hacked in some precincts across the country. The threat? Eliminating names so you wouldn’t be on the list to vote.

Shelby County Probate Judge Allison Boyd is the top election official for that county. She says they’ll use paper voter registration lists as a backup if needed.

“We have those available on Election Day,” Boyd says. “We would make sure that got to the precinct, and the person would just sign in on paper instead of electronically on a screen.”

But what about voting machines?

Like many states, Alabama uses computerized voting machines that scan paper ballots. And they aren’t connected to the Internet. But experts say any voting machine can be hacked.

Dr. Andrew Appel is a Princeton University computer science professor. He testified on election cybersecurity before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“The computer program that’s installed in that voting machine that counts up the marks on the optical scan ballots—it’s not that difficult, if you hack into the machine, to replace it with one that shifts votes around from one column to another,” Appel says.

Voting machines are kept in secure warehouses before Election Day. Each machine is programmed, tested, and approved. A plastic seal goes on each one, too. But, there’s a key layer of security that’s missing.

The need for post-election audits

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states and Washington, D.C. have rules requiring post-election audits. That’s where election officials compare randomly-selected paper ballots against voting machine results from different precincts. Alabama doesn’t conduct those audits.

“You would have the true results on all those paper ballots.” Appel says. “But, nobody would be looking at those paper ballots and you might accept a fraudulent result from a hacked voting machine.”

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill says there are plans to implement post-election audits. But, not until the presidential primary in March of 2020.

“Anything that we can do, Brian, that increases the confidence of the voter is a plus for Alabama,” Merrill says.

“I’m worried, but I’m still going to vote,” Little says.

The bottom line: The Department of Homeland Security says our election system is much more secure now than two years ago. But election hacking remains a serious threat.

Meantime, Merrill says Alabamians should be confident that their votes will count in the Nov. 6th election.

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