Can we trust voting machines won’t be hacked?

“The 360” collects diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories to show you views from all sides.

What’s happening

Last week’s national elections decided the governorship in two states, shifted legislative control in Virginia to Democrats and settled a long list of important ballot measures across the country. They also served as the first test of new electronic voting machines that have been rolled out across the country to protect the 2020 election from foreign interference. 

In the wake of the disputed 2000 Bush v. Gore election, amid arguments about hanging chads and confusing butterfly ballots, Congress approved more than $3 billion to replace older voting methods with easy-to-use electronic voting machines. Cybersecurity was an afterthought at the time, which led to the current systems that rely on voting machines vulnerable to being hacked.

Many of those machines were in use when Russia targeted election systems in all 50 states as part of its effort to influence the 2016 election. Russia is expected to launch a similar campaign again in 2020. Intelligence officials fear foreign powers like China and Iran may do the same.

Why there’s debate

Concern over foreign interference has spawned a nationwide push to replace the vulnerable voting machines. More than 130,000 new machines have been purchased in precincts across the country to replace older paperless ones, many of which carry known security vulnerabilities. These old machines are particularly worrisome because they don’t create a paper backup, meaning there’s no way to know whether their results have been compromised. Despite the push from Congress to replace them, it is estimated that 16 million voters will use paperless machines in 2020.

Some security experts worry that the new machines being brought in as replacements, which provide a paper backup that can be checked by voters and election officials, are also insecure. Most are not connected to the internet, but they can be compromised within minutes by a savvy hacker in person. These new machines were used for the first time last week in a number of districts across the country, with some locations reporting major glitches

All these issues have prompted some election security experts to call for an end to electronic voting altogether and a return to old-fashioned pen and paper ballots. But some experts worry a return to paper voting could bring back old issues that plagued earlier elections, such as voter error, confusing ballots, slow counts and suppressed turnout. 

What’s next

There’s some bipartisan consensus in Congress that more needs to be done to secure the country’s voting machines. A bill providing extra funding for election systems recently passed both houses, and more money could be apportioned before 2020. However, legislation passed by House Democrats that would require all voting systems to have a paper record has stalled in the Republican-led Senate. 

The next big debate in election integrity may be just around the corner. Last Tuesday, a small number of voters were allowed to vote via smartphone for the first time, a method that is seen as potentially increasing access to voting but raises troubling security concerns. 


Hackers are out ahead of our attempts to stop them

“The main issue is that criminals and foreign operatives intent on disrupting the midterms have worked harder, faster, and with more intent than those trying to fend off the attacks. Hackers rely on automated processes — apps, development tools and online databases on services like GitHub or Pastebin — that make it easy to hack the machines used for tallying votes.” — John Brandon, Fox News

Fears of election hacking are overblown

“No hacker in Moscow can reach across the World Wide Web and alter what your ballot says. Even if they somehow managed to alter the data being tabulated in some local or state government system that is connected to the Internet, a recount would reveal the discrepancy.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

Even the perception of insecure elections can erode public confidence in our democracy

“It is sobering to consider the effect that a deep erosion of public confidence in the election process could have. It would be devastating to Americans’ faith in our democracy and the legitimacy of our elected government.” — Lee C. Bollinger and Michael A. McRobbie, The Hill

The machines are secure if staff workers at polling places are properly trained

“Errors usually are caused by poorly trained election workers, the hacking threat is a bit overblown, and there’s a long history of problems with paper ballots.” — Editorial, Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.)

The U.S. should switch back to pen and paper ballots

“There is a solution to this problem, and it’s maddeningly simple: Take presidential elections out of cyberspace. In other words, go back to the paper ballot.” — Fred Kaplan, Slate

Senate Republicans are holding back the effort to secure our election

“Despite expert consensus, political activism, and availability of funding, opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate makes it unlikely that the [the House election security bill] or any paper ballot standard will be implemented by 2020.” — Raj Karan Gambhir and Jack Karsten, Brookings Institution

There isn’t enough time to fix all the problems before 2020

“The first primary votes of the 2020 election will be cast in the Iowa caucuses in just a few months, but it’s impossible to patch the gaping security holes in U.S. election security by then, or even by Election Day.” — Election cybersecurity expert Harri Hursti to Washington Post

Voting machines make it easier to vote, which increases turnout 

“The boosters of these new voting machines … say that these touch-screen computers printing completed ballots will make voting simpler and more trustworthy. They say that is especially true for infrequent voters and voters with disabilities.” — Steven Rosenfeld, Salon

America’s patchwork of election systems means hacks can affect only a small number of voters

“There are about 3,200 counties or their equivalents across the United States and its territories. … That huge breadth and diversity means that most elections truly are local and it would be nearly impossible for a foreign adversary to touch them all with a single effort.” — Philip Ewing, NPR

Paper backups are useless if voters don’t know to check them for accuracy

“Most voters don’t bother to verify paper-ballot summary cards, and a significant percentage can’t recall the selections they made on the computer touch screen anyway — even when they had cast their votes just moments before.” — Timothy Pratt, Atlantic

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters