U.S. elections aren’t rigged, but they are vulnerable

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE

As Donald Trump’s poll numbers plummet among young voters, people of color, and key swing state residents, and the Republican Party openly mulls pulling financial support, the GOP nominee has begun offering a justification for losing the general election.

“I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged,” he said in a Fox News interview. He repeated this warning again and again in speeches and interviews, claiming that people will be able to “vote 10 times,” and urging his supporters to engage in the kind of election day poll watching that borders on illegal intimidation.

Though this kind of in-person voter fraud is vanishingly rare, the U.S. election system does have serious vulnerabilities to the kind of hacking that could swing at least a local or statewide election. And in the wake of several widespread hacks of government data, confidence is not high in U.S. cyber security.

Some members of Congress concerned about these voting machine weaknesses have introduced a bill to mandate more secure technology and post-election audits. But computer science experts government accountability experts say much more needs to be done to boost trust in U.S. democracy.

Losing the paper trail

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill says the kind of mass vote-rigging Donald Trump describes is impossible, because every state, and in some cases every individual county, has different voting equipment.

“There is no national system of elections,” she told ThinkProgress. “In my state, for example, there are 169 towns, and each registrar runs the election there. This is mostly done by county clerks in other states. So the simple scale of such a rigging makes it difficult to image.” Merrill, who is also the new head of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), also emphasized that “all equipment is certified nationally.”

“The simple scale of such a rigging makes it difficult to image.”

But this certification is purely voluntary. Only 12 states require full federal certification of their voting machines, and while many more reference federal guidelines and standards, nine follow no national guidelines at all: Florida, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon and Vermont.

While Merrill says Connecticut conducts a post-election audit of their machines, checking 10 percent of them, nearly a third of U.S. states do not.

The type of machine that most concerns election experts use Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) technology. These voting machines have electronic touchscreens that internally record votes and have no paper receipt for voters to verify or poll workers to audit. Hundreds of counties across the United States bought DREs following the “hanging chad” scandal of the 2000 election in Florida, but some have since abandoned them following irregularities and lawsuits from voting rights groups. But even after some of these machines were reported to have “severe security problems” and others were discovered flipping votes, they remain in use in many jurisdictions.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), who sponsored the election integrity bill, called this a “growing threat to the American political system.”

“The American people must have confidence that our elections and their votes not only count, but are accurate and secure,” he told ThinkProgress. “The recent court cases rolling back discriminatory restrictions on voting as well as the revelations of foreign and domestic interference to our voting process is a stark reminder that Congress must act.”

Aging Out

States received billions of dollars in 2002 from the Help America Vote Act, but those funds have long since dried up. Officials in nearly half of U.S. states say they need money to replace their aging voting machines — states that contain more than 120 million registered voters, and account for more than half of the nation’s 538 electoral votes. “The majority of machines in use today are either perilously close to or exceed” their lifespans, the Brennan Center at NYU discovered last year. Their report warned that only wealthier counties can pay to upgrade their equipment, leaving voters in poorer counties to contend with malfunctioning machines, longer lines, and decreased trust in the election outcome.

“When states simply can’t afford to renew the equipment,” Merrill warned, “they say, ‘Let’s wait till they actually fail.’ That’s dangerous.”

Those involved in crafting the bill emphasized that it does not mandate a uniform type of machine for the nation — which could make elections more vulnerable to hacking. But it does set stricter standards for the machines, and provides some funding so that states who don’t currently meet them can buy better equipment.

Senior Democratic staff on Capitol Hill told ThinkProgress the legislation also mandates that voters receive some kind of tangible record of their vote. States would also have to create some type of audit mechanism if they don’t have one already, and would be barred from connecting their voting machines to the internet.

The Election Integrity Act is similar to the Voter Empowerment Act, which was introduced by Democrats in Congress several times over the past few years but failed to pass. In light of the recent hacks of private e-mails of members of Congress and the DNC, staffers hope that the security of the U.S. voting system is now enough of a priority to warrant action.

This post was updated when information about the Election Integrity Act became available.