There was a time when we used to take for granted that our votes would be counted accurately and securely, but nowadays voting machines look more like computers and the concern is that hackers can get into the machines and change the chip that calculates votes as Princeton professor Andrew Appel explained last year.
“You can install it in the voting machine by just prying out the legitimate chip that’s in there now and installing this fraudulent chip in the socket,” he said.
That’s technically true says Robert Giles, the director of the state’s Division of Elections, but it’s not as easy at it sounds.
“Well, obviously if someone were to try and hack the machine, regardless of whether it’s our equipment or anybody else’s equipment,” said Giles, “if somebody attempted that, it would have to be a physical attack on the machine, because our machines are not connected to the internet, they’re not networked, so you have to actually attack each individual machine, one at a time, so that creates a problem for the attacker to be able to do any large scale attack on our system.”
So, when we hear about the Russians hacked our voting system, what are people talking about when they say that?
“That’s a great question, and we run into that,” said Giles. “What happened in 2016 with the Russians, they weren’t attacking our voting machines. What they were going after is our voting registration databases because the voting machines themselves are not connected to the internet and not networked so you can’t get to them from Russia.”
Ironically, those voter databases are publicly available, and we’ve also come to learn that the foreign attacks concentrated more on changing voters’ minds before they voted than messing with their actual ballots. As for the machines, Giles says machines and polling place security are a much higher priority nowadays. The state got a federal election security grant last year – almost $10 million – as part of the Help America Vote Act to further secure the voting system.
“$10 million is not to replace all the voting machines in the state,” acknowledged Giles, “so one of the things we’ve done is taken a quarter of that, $2.5 million, and developed pilot programs so counties can start purchasing a small number of machines and start testing new equipment rather than going out and spending $4 million and realizing that this isn’t necessarily the equipment that they want. So by doing this, they do a small election and decide if that’s the equipment they want. We put another good chunk of it into cybersecurity. We now have somebody from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness dedicated 100 percent to elections. That person is basically the liaison to the county, not just county election officials, but the county IT departments. And that’s big, getting the county IT departments in sync with the county elections offices and with our programs is a big part of what we’re looking to do. Physical security, we’re looking to utilize some of the funds for that to make sure voting machine warehouses are secure, so we’ve spread that over several categories to really look at a global view of election security.”
One of those pilot programs is in Union County, where the town of Westfield used $2 million to buy 190 new machines that’ll be easier to see, easier to customize than the ones currently in service, and for added piece of mind, contain an actual paper trail, which has been a cause of concern for some.
“It’s something that we are moving toward, yes,” added Giles. “To move toward that, yes. We have complete confidence in the voting systems we have right now, but that’s the nest, the evolution. The next step is to say now let’s have this voter-verified and auditable paper record.”
Paper trails just like the old days. Now, all the system needs is some healthy voter turnout to give it a good test run.