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The 5 States Most Vulnerable to a 2018 Election Hack

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 7/11/2018 David Catanese
A view of a ballot scanner at a New York City Board of Elections voting machine facility warehouse, November 3, 2016 in the Bronx borough in New York City. The voting booths, ballot scanners and other supplies will be picked up on Monday and delivered to area Bronx polling places ahead of Tuesday's election.: Optical scan or "paper-based" ballot machines are one of the most effective ways to defend against hacking, election experts say. © Drew Angerer/Getty Images Optical scan or "paper-based" ballot machines are one of the most effective ways to defend against hacking, election experts say.

Around one year ago, Liz Howard, the deputy commissioner of elections in Virginia had felt good about being prepared for the fall's approaching voting. Localities looked ready and the state legislature had just passed mandatory post-election audits.

"And then," she recalled. "DEFCON happened."

At an annual worldwide hacking convention in Las Vegas – scheduled this year during the second week in August – intruders in a simulation made their way into the commonwealth's electronic touch-screen voting machines used in roughly two dozen jurisdictions.

In one article about the hack, Howard spotted a tweet that contained the correct password for one of her voting machines.

"We knew immediately that we had a big problem and that we needed to put these machines through independent security testing," she said.

Then she ran into another snafu: The vendors for the machines weren't required by law to provide a sample for her to test. So she piled into her sedan and personally drove around the state to pick up equipment from friendly local election officials who were equally alarmed.

The initial results of the tests were downright "scary," Howard said. There was no way she could vouch for the integrity of these machines if irregularities appeared at the polls.

Fifty-nine days prior to a general election that featured a high-profile race for governor, the state's Board of Elections moved to decertify the electronic machines that leave no paper trail in the event of a real-life hacking catastrophe.

With an even bigger midterm election approaching this November, Howard, now counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program at New York University School of Law, worries the situation that confronted Virginia a year ago is very similar to what many other states are facing today.

Hackers are very likely again working the dark web to infiltrate and sabotage an American election. In 2016, it was Russia attempting to gain access to voting-related websites in at least six states, though there is no evidence that any votes were changed. But in 2018, it could be Iran, China, North Korea – or even a sinister domestic group aiming to wreak havoc.

Due to both a lack of funding and political urgency, a handful of states are still vulnerable to the same type of attack Virginia was.

The worst part?

At this point, there aren't many remedies that can be employed in time ahead of Tuesday, Nov. 6.

"For 2018, if a sophisticated nation state wants to cause chaos on Election Day, they're probably already in our systems," said J. Alex Halderman, an election security expert and professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, during a forum on Capitol Hill this week.

Asked what states can do to combat the infiltrators, he replied, "They can't do much unfortunately."

A fail-safe has become a trend toward adopting optical scan or "paper-based" machines. It may seem retrograde, but experts say having a physical paper ballot of record is one of the most effective ways to defend against online mischief.

And yet, 13 states – including places with competitive races like Pennsylvania, Indiana and Texas, still use some voting machines without any paper trail, according to a Brennan Center report. Of those 13, five – Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina – still use the paperless machines statewide.

Federal funding is covering about half of the cost associated with upgrading the equipment in these states, leaving them to make up the rest of it themselves.

In this respect, America's state-run elections become a double-edged sword. The diversity of systems used across the country make it too complex for hackers to take down the entire structure at once. On the other hand, it's not impossible to think that the fate of a governorship or control of Congress could hang on a handful of precincts in one county in a single state.

Some swing states, like Pennsylvania, are racing to upgrade all of their equipment in time for 2020. But that leaves the commonwealth – host of a U.S. Senate and gubernatorial contest – vulnerable in 2018.

In Georgia, a commission is still studying a replacement for its touch-screen voting machines and hasn't yet decided how to precisely spend its $10 million federal grant, according to McClatchy.

This posture is alarming the most worrisome critics, like Barbara Simons, a former IBM researcher and author of a new book asking, "Will Your Vote Count?"

"The midterm is vulnerable to attack. There's nothing we can do about it. It's too late – if Putin wants to attack our midterm, he will," Simons told Yahoo this week.

While some states are certainly more secure than others, Simons takes the most dour and extreme view that anything involving a computer is insecure.

"That includes paper-ballot-based systems because almost all of them are tabulated by scanners, and the scanners basically are computers. That means we can't trust any of these outcomes. We have to check them. We have to verify them. ... Oh, I'm damn scared."

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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