When Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told American voters this week that the election may be “rigged” against him by a biased media and possibly by elections officials in states across the country, he sowed renewed seeds of doubt into the minds of voters about America’s most democratic process.
Trump would only commit to accepting election results “if I win,” an unprecedented preemptive move that sets himself up to protest the results if Election Day doesn’t go his way.
But after a massive attack took down major internet sites on the East Coast on Friday and with news that Russian hackers that could be tied to the Kremlin had gained access to voter registration rolls in Illinois and Arizona in August, real questions about the security of the upcoming election linger.
In South Carolina, where politicians and elections officials decried Trump’s rhetoric and the notion that even the polling places could be rigged against him, state and local elections officials sought to reassure voters that swaying an election via widespread vote manipulation would be unlikely and virtually impossible.
Whether an Election Day cyber-attack could compromise targeted precincts in a way that could sway South Carolina’s election results is a more difficult question to answer.
Election commission officials say they’ve taken every precaution to ensure its voter registration database won’t be compromised and that its voting machines will remain secure.
“The danger is that any sort of hacking would undermine the public’s confidence in the election,” said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the State Election Commission.
However unlikely, aspects of South Carolina’s election system prove vulnerable to attack, said Duncan Buell, a University of South Carolina computer science professor who has found issues with the state’s voter rolls and election processes in past years, including clerical errors and minor software bugs. Buell works with the League of Women Voters of South Carolina and works on contract on election security projects nationwide.
South Carolina’s aging electronic voting machines and the state’s use of a machine that doesn’t create a paper record of each ballot could also prove problematic in a protested election, Buell said.
“If the electronic machines die, we won’t have any clue what’s going on in the election,” Buell said.
South Carolina is taking added measures to ensure the security of the election process, both to protect its voter registration rolls and to ensure security at polls on Nov. 8, Whitmire said.
The state, and at least 32 other states, turned to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for help to scan for attempts to hack its voter registration database or its websites, Whitmire said. Homeland security’s assistance is unprecedented and the state is also working with cyber security units from SLED, the FBI and the S.C. National Guard to monitor known threats, he said.
It’s contracted with a cyber security firm to review its online system, election processes and physical security and it’s ramped up work with the state’s division of information technology to monitor state and county election computers, its scvotes.org website and its election night reporting website, he said.
“We’ve stopped short of talking about what exactly everybody’s doing to not talk about our specific security measures,” Whitmire said.
South Carolina takes numerous steps to secure its voting machines and electronic ballots.
Its voting machines aren’t connected to the Internet and aren’t networked together, so an attack would only compromise individual machines, Whitmire said.
Votes are stored in four different locations in case one location failed or was compromised.
When votes are tabulated at the county election offices at the end of the election night, those computers also are never connected to the Internet and those counties aren’t networked, he said.
“So it’s very fragmented,” he said. “Not only are none of these approximately 13,000 voting machines across the state, none of them are connected to each other, (but) none of the counties are connected to each other. None of it’s connected to the internet.”
The only connection between vote totals and the Internet is on the state’s website, which doesn’t record the vote totals but simply reports the totals, he said.
“If something was not right on our website it would become apparent very quickly,” he said, because the results will have been reported at each polling place and at the county level and would still be recorded on each machine.”
Whitmire said the system is designed to prevent a virus from being put onto a voting machine and it would be “highly unlikely in a real world environment” for one machine to corrupt any other machine.
But Buell said there are some vulnerabilities in South Carolina’s system.
South Carolina was the first state to choose its voting machines when the nation moved to electronic machines for the 2004 presidential election. It chose to use the same machine across the state, a move that makes it more vulnerable, Buell said.
“If one were able to come up with a hack, the hack that might work in Greenville might work in Lexington or Anderson or anywhere else,” he said.
A 2007 study in Ohio showed that a virus could be loaded onto one electronic voting machine and could be spread to county election headquarters to change voting outcomes, he said.
Also, though the voting machines aren’t connected to the internet, the PEBs and flash drives could be connected to the internet at some point for software upgrades. The State Election Commission considers that information private for security reasons.
Buell said a virus built by the U.S. and Israel was able to take out nuclear capabilities in Iran even though those systems weren’t connected to the internet.
“This is all about corrupting the election, changing the votes that get counted,” Buell said.
Disrupting the election
The state election commission says it would be nearly impossible to coordinate an attack large enough to disrupt the election because the election is carried out using 13,000 machines in 46 counties, none of which are connected to each other.
But, Buell said, If someone was able to get the voter registration rolls at the right time and could change several thousand addresses or names, it could throw certain precincts into confusion as poll workers tried to sort through errors and voters had to use provisional ballots to vote.
It could lead to long lines at certain precincts, and if those precincts are predominantly lower wage working voters, it could suppress the vote.
“If you did that in Lexington and Greenville and Anderson and a couple of other counties, you could perhaps swing South Carolina for Clinton,” he said. “Pick the really solidly Republican counties and make their Election Day a miserable eight hour wait in long lines. That would really disrupt the election.”
That possibility is why South Carolina has taken such precautions to protect its online voter registration database, Whitmire said.
“There’s no such thing as 100 percent security,” Whitmire said. “That’s what cyber security professionals will tell you. You can take all reasonable measures but there’s always a chance.”
Dead people voting
The attack least likely to swing an election would be if voters commit fraud by voting using dead voters credentials.
It would be difficult to find enough dead voters whose names are still on the voter roll to make any real difference, Buell said.
But after the 2010 election, Buell studied the election results to search for voter fraud. He found 953 possible cases where a deceased voter voted in 74 different elections dating back to 2005. An investigation into some of those cases showed that most were clerical errors where a poll worker marked that the wrong person had voted.
What happens when you vote:
- When you enter the polling place, your identification, usually a driver’s license or ID card, will be checked by a poll worker, who ensures your name and address matches the voter roll.
- A poll worker will check your voting district and will take a cartridge, called a Personal Electronic Ballot (PEB), to the electronic voting machine and insert it into the machine, which issues the correct ballot. None of the voting machines are connected to the Internet and no voting machines are networked to another machine, Whitmire said.
- The poll worker leaves the voter to make their selections.
- When the voter is finished making their selections and casts their ballot, it is saved in three locations – two on the machines hard drive and one on a memory flash card that’s securely loaded into the machine. That flash card is located inside closed compartment in the top of the machine, which is secured with a strip of tape. If the tape is tampered with for any reason, poll workers will immediately shut down the machine. If the flash card is removed, the machine will shut down automatically but will preserve the votes on the hard drive in two locations. It’s unlikely that a voter would be able to get to the flash drive because they would have to pick the machine up and turn it on its end to access the flash card port, said Conway Belangia, director of Greenville County Voter Registration and Elections.
- Each voters ballot is saved as a whole ballot (though immediately randomized with other ballots so there’s no timestamp (to preserve the voters secrecy) so election officials can review ballots in case of a protested election. “It’s not just tick marks in columns, but it’s actually preserving that ballot as it was cast,” Whitmire said.
- At the end of the day, poll workers insert a separate green PEB cartridge successively into each machine, and answer a series of 12 questions to shut down the machine and save the votes to a fourth location on the PEB itself.
- Once the PEB has been inserted into each machine to close the machines and load the vote totals onto the PEB, the poll workers then connect a voting machine with the PEB loaded onto it to a printer, print two copies of the vote results from the polling place and post one paper copy to the door of the polling place.
- Poll workers then load the PEB, the second paper copy and the voting machines into their vehicle and drive to County Square.
- At County Square, employees insert each PEB into a computer (which is also not connected to the Internet), to tabulate the countywide results, which are then posted on the wall at County Square and sent to the State Election Commission.
- All machines – 1,200-1,400 of them from across the county – are collected at County Square and locked in a secure room overnight.
- The elections office then audits its votes to ensure the totals from the PEBs match the totals on the flash cards removed from each voting machine.