This U.S. Election Could Be the Most Secure Yet. Here’s Why.


Voting machines. Our democracy depends on them to accurately record each and every ballot. You go to the polls, you cast your vote, your voice is heard. Right? Not so fast. “Russian attacks.” “Russian hackers.” “Russian hackers tried to break into U.S. election systems.” Because in 2016 — “The Russians managed to get us paranoid about the security of our own election systems.” But this year, experts are more confident that — “I think it is safe to say this is the most secure election we’ve ever held in the United States.” In 2016, Russians infiltrated our voting systems in every single state. “This was one of the most successful intelligence operations in modern history.” Now, there’s no evidence Russians altered votes, but — “It’s as if a cat burglar got into your house, cased the joint, but didn’t take anything.” And it raised the question — “Could the Russians actually affect the vote?” But because of some of the machines we were using, we didn’t know for sure. So in 2020, if there’s another cyberattack, Americans want to know that their vote was counted as they cast it. Like, say, with a — “Voter-verified paper trail.” Yes, like that. A paper trail. Turns out a few people tried to make this happen years ago, but — “It’s a rough world out there in the elections voting system business.” To see why it took Russia’s hacking to improve our voting technology, we go to Texas. The Constitution gives states power to run their own elections, and most states give counties the power to choose their own voting machines. And nowhere is this more apparent than in — “Texas.” “Texas.” “Texas —” [mooing] “— is a microcosm of all the different voting technologies used everywhere in the U.S. Every different Texas county, different voting system, different procedures.” Dan Wallach is a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston, and he had actually been warning about the vulnerabilities of our voting system long before 2016. “I’m worried about evil software in the machines flipping your vote in a way that you, the voter, can’t tell that the machine was evil.” He was most concerned about direct recording electronic voting machines, or DREs. “The only record of your vote is inside the memory of that machine. And that means that if something tampers with that electronic memory, you have no way to go back.” And yet in the last presidential election, 28 percent of registered voters used these machines. So how did some Americans get stuck with these vulnerable voting machines? Well, to find out, we need to go all the way back to 2000. The aught. Florida. It was Al Gore versus George Bush for president. “Oh my goodness. 2000. That was the election that we all thought would never end. “The presidential race is crackling like a hickory fire here. Couldn’t be much closer.” A contested vote, a recount and all of it came down to the chads. Those pesky fragments of paper leftover when a hole is punched in a card. Not all those chads were entirely punched through, though. “There was a hanging chad.” “It’s slightly detached.” “Pregnant chad.” “Dimpled chad.” “Opening and closing chad.” During the recount, poll workers were left to determine voter intent, and all eyes were on the chads. “By that time, we all knew what a bad system punch-card voting was.” “In the wake of the hanging chad issues, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The Help America Vote Act allocated billions of dollars to help states replace antiquated voting machines.” And the states went shopping. Some bought hand-marked paper ballots and optical scanners. And others bought the machines that had worried Dan the most. The very modern, paperless DREs. “If it were up to me today, and if I were selling voting technology, I would not sell a paperless DRE system in good conscience. I don’t think that it’s a responsible thing to do.” This is Eddie Perez. He used to sell these machines, but left the industry to advocate for more secure voting systems with a paper trail. “I would characterize the level of federal regulation for voting technology as relatively thin. There are a lot of products that are actually more highly regulated than voting technology. Even things as mundane as ballpoint pens. Parts fail, systems get old, screens stop performing the way they are supposed to. So a voter might touch one portion of the screen to mark one candidate and the system interprets it as a choice for someone else.” “It is not letting me vote for who I want to vote for.” “There is plenty of voting equipment that is still out there whose design dates, probably, all the way back to 20 years ago.” But with most of their federal money spent, many Texas counties were stuck. “We kept our electronic voting system for 18 years.” As Travis County Clerk, Dana DeBeauvoir is responsible for picking the machines for voters in Austin. “The thing that was most important to our voters was to have a paper trail. But none of the voting system manufacturers would build a system with a paper trail. And it was frustrating.” And so she decided to build one herself. “I was watching a video of a professor out of Rice University rake me over the coals.” “Such blatant security flaws. I mean, just really bad engineering.” “Instead of just getting mad, I went to that person.” “My phone rings and it’s Dana, and she says, ‘I want your help.’” “And I said to him, ‘Let’s you and I design a voting system together.’” “I’m like, seriously? All right. Can I invite my friends? We hacked up an inkjet printer and a bunch of other cheap hardware mashed into a custom steel box that we built, and we came up with a really great design.” They called it S.T.A.R. Vote. “Computer scientists love to make acronyms out of words. First we come up with the acronym, then we try to find the words that fit.” “Secure.” “Transparent.” “Auditable.” “Reliable.” “A combination of both electronic and paper voting paper voting methods.” “S.T.A.R. Vote.” A new electronic voting machine with paper backup ballots that help with verification and audit. An open-source system which makes it more secure and cheaper for taxpayers. The end product, a newer, safer voting machine. “What we were actually doing was a start-up business. And I don’t think we really realized that at the outset.” Designing a machine is one thing. Finding someone to manufacture it is another. “The voting system industry is a couple hundred million dollars a year. That’s a teeny tiny market.” “It’s difficult to get in the marketplace, and they don’t welcome anybody else coming in.” In a small market, there’s not much room for competition. Just three companies dominate the voting machine industry. “Those three major vendors are the ones that have carved out their space and made their commitment to it. And so they actually wield a lot of power in that industry.” “That market doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for companies to do innovative design and development.” “Voting technology is simply very, very slow to change.” “Current electronic voting machines have little or no security built in. Please help me and other elections administrators who want to do a better job. What we are designing is an electronic voting system. We’re ready to start building S.T.A.R. Vote.” In 2016, Dana DeBeauvoir had reached the final stages of the S.T.A.R. Vote design when reports that … “The intelligence services of a foreign power intervened on a scale never seen before.” … shook America’s confidence in its voting system. It seemed like the perfect moment for new players like S.T.A.R. Vote, who’d spent years thinking about how to get voters to trust their election results. “Since we had done all the design work for them, we thought one of the regular manufacturers would pick this up. Travis County put it out to bid. Most of the big manufacturers submitted bids. However, they submitted bids that were more along the lines of, buy what we already have.” She says the vendors rejected a key security component of S.T.A.R. Vote. “Open-source software.” Good for transparency, but having free source code means companies can’t charge as much. “Open-source systems — at least the way this one was designed, and in most cases — are low-revenue software projects.” They all passed. With the 2020 election around the corner, Dana still had all those aging DREs, so she was — “Running out of time. At that point, we realized that we had reached the end of our possibilities with S.T.A.R. Vote. It was probably the lowest time in my entire career. We had the secret recipe for pulling everybody together, and we still hadn’t made it happen.” But bigger changes were happening nationally. After 2016, voting systems were declared part of the country’s critical infrastructure — like dams and power plants. This meant new federal scrutiny of how Americans cast their vote for the first time since 2000. “And the voting machine manufacturers began to get the message.” “Yes.” “They began to move towards systems that had paper backup because they recognized that the political pressure was tremendous.” In 2018, Congress gave the states more money to fortify their systems and required a paper trail for all newly purchased voting machines. “Six months after we got the bad news that no one was going to build S.T.A.R. Vote for us, we got a dramatic turnaround in the industry for voting systems. They had in fact built a new voting system with electronic support and a paper trail. My thrill was a little bit tempered by the frustration of knowing that they could have done it years before.” And so Travis County joins battleground states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, and went shopping. Again. “A lot of money.” And paper is the reason experts are saying 2020 may be the most secure election we’ve ever held. It’s not just about the voting machines. A greater number of e-poll books — which are used to check-in voters on Election Day — will also have a paper backup system. “And that’s why the Department of Homeland Security has spent a year trying to get cities and towns across America to print out those e-poll books to make sure that they had multiple backups of their registration systems.” A process moved further along by the pandemic. “You know in an odd way, the coronavirus crisis has helped us some in our election crises.” It’s pushed many states to shift to mail-in voting, which offers an automatic paper backup. In 2020, because of states buying new voting systems and the increase in vote-by-mail, an estimated 95 percent of voters will use auditable paper ballots. That’s not to say the shift to paper has been problem-free. Some states bought machines that produce a barcode for a paper ballot, which makes it harder for voters to verify. “The paper that comes out of the machine — machine-marked paper — has a barcode on it that is the official vote. No human can read a barcode.” And in various states, there have been printing errors on mail-in ballots. “There’s a different name on the ballot that you’re supposed to send in.” Still, when it comes to hacking and widespread fraud, experts agree that paper — through mail-in voting or with a voter verified paper trail — is as safe as it gets. “Having a paper ballot mailed to more and more Americans means there is a traceable way for people to vote. And a way for election monitors to audit later on that those votes were counted the way they were cast. And that they were cast by people eligible to vote.” The nation’s voting system is safer than it was four years ago, but some counties didn’t make the transition and could be more vulnerable. “The only states with significant amounts of non-paper digital ballots are states like, honestly, Texas.” Texas, a potential swing state for 2020, lags behind the rest of the country in election security. Harris County, the third largest county in the nation, wasn’t able to purchase new machines and still has their DREs from 2006. And with the Texas Supreme Court refusing to expand absentee voting and by allowing only one drop box per county, it puts extra pressure on the machines to function smoothly on Election Day. “A perception hack is a hack that is just big enough to create the illusion of a broad cyberattack. Because if they can manipulate some votes, registration systems, e-poll books, in just a few places, people will assume that they did so everywhere. That’s the beauty of a perception hack. And four years later, The psychological import of what the Russians did may be greater than anything that they actually hacked into, because they have managed to shake the confidence of American voters that their votes will be counted as they cast them.” This is Alex. And I’m Kassie. We produced this episode of “Stressed Election.” There’s a lot going on this election, and we want to make sure we take a deep dive into the major issues. Stick around for the next episodes. We’re going to cover voting rights, voting technology, disinformation and vote-by-mail.



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