man using touchscreen voting machine (Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock.com)

Aging voting machines risk election security

Even with state and local government officials pledging to replace paperless voting machines, the security vulnerabilities faced in 2016 will likely continue through 2020, according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Support for paper ballots and post-election audits have gained broad support among election officials, but two-thirds said they don't have the money  to replace their machines in a timely fashion, even after receiving federal funding last year.

While newer voting machines aren't automatically more secure, machines a decade or older are more likely to have higher maintenance costs, rely on hard-to-find parts and run software that is no longer patched or maintained by vendors.

"Older equipment in general doesn't benefit from the last decade or two or security improvements," Alex Halderman, professor of computer science at the University of Michigan and an expert in election security, told the House Appropriations Committee at a Feb. 27 hearing.

The Brennan Center released versions of the report in 2015 and 2018, but this is the first iteration published after Congress made $380 million in federal grant funding available to states for voting and election system upgrades. While a third of those funds have been set aside to purchase newer voting machines, states have five years to actually spend their portion, and some may be waiting for new federal voluntary voting system standards to be put in place first.

Additionally, states have complained those funds represent a small fraction of what is needed, and estimates for the total amount required to wean the country off paperless voting machines entirely range from $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

However, simply purchasing newer machines won't automatically mean states and jurisdictions are secure.

"Things have gotten better in security in general, but we still don't know how to make a machine that's absolutely hack proof," Halderman said. "That's why we need this other layer of defense that comes from having a paper trail, paper ballots and going back and spot checking them to make sure the result is right."

During the 2016 elections, 14 states used paperless voting machines in at least some counties and jurisdictions that experts said can't be effectively audited, , with five using them statewide. Since then, Virginia and Arkansas have moved to replace their voting machines with newer models that have some form of paper backup.

Nine of the remaining 12 states told the center they hoped to buy new machines with paper backups. Six of the 12 have either passed legislation or taken executive action to move their systems towards paper-based machines.

Not every jurisdiction or state is following those recommendations, however.

"Despite the recent attention to election security, and repeated warnings by security experts that voting machines should have a voter-verified paper backup, several counties in Texas have purchased machines without a paper trail since 2016," the report noted.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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