As a computer scientist focusing on election technology, I spend half my time telling people to worry less, the other half telling them to worry more. Worry less about the computers that count votes and more about those that provide administrative support. The good news is that the outcomes of Minnesota elections are determined by voters, not stealthy intruders. However, continued attention is needed to avoid confidence-sapping disruptions to the election process.
What doesn’t worry me: covertly altered election results
In Minnesota, we aren’t going to experience surreptitiously changed election results. If everything seems normal on Election Day and no problems are uncovered in the subsequent review processes, then when official results are released a few weeks later, we can be confident they are correct.
This confidence comes from our use of paper ballots that are carefully safeguarded and manually checked. Even when the election isn’t close, a random sample of precincts are checked by hand. This verifies that ballot scanners count votes the same way humans do. The officially reported results reflect those votes, not some illusion conjured up by a cyber-attacker.
What does worry me: difficulty voting and unclear results
A cyber-attacker looking for a softer target would aim for the computers used to store voter registrations, check voters in, and report preliminary results. Attacks on those systems could make it hard to vote and to get timely, confidence-inspiring information after the election.
These dangers are illustrated by the following three scenarios. Minnesota’s state and local election officials are already protecting against these scenarios, using not only technical defenses like tightened login controls but also procedural ones, such as cross-checking different records. However, protecting these networked systems is difficult and requires continued attention and resources.
Plausible scenario 1: blocked voters. On Nov. 6, millions of Minnesotans will try checking in at their polling places. Suppose that substantially more of them than usual aren’t on the roster — their registration mysteriously vanished, thanks to an intrusion into the state’s system. Most of them can work around the problem using Election Day Registration, but some can’t, and the unexpectedly large number of voters re-registering causes long delays at the polling places, causing some other would-be voters to give up in frustration. No one is sure whether these lost voters would have changed the results. In a variation of this scenario, instead of lost registrations, some voters could be falsely shown as having already voted by absentee ballot, which would be even harder to work around.
Plausible scenario 2: frozen e-pollbooks. Some polling places use electronic pollbook systems to check voters in. Suppose those systems fail entirely: not just an isolated glitch, but all the systems freezing thanks to a few lines of rogue code. The paper-based fallback plan is put into place, but it slows down the process, leading to ever-growing waiting lines. Even though the polling places continue processing voters for hours after the closing time, many voters have meanwhile given up in frustration. No one is sure whether this changed the results, and the overall chaotic atmosphere compounds the uncertainty.
Plausible scenario 3: election-night reporting trouble. Suppose the voting itself goes smoothly, but trouble shows up as preliminary results are reported after the close of the polls. Some of the results are unavailable within the normally expected time period or are clearly wrong, altered as they pass through the reporting systems. Alternatively, they all look plausible, but then election officials announce that the preliminary results were wrong and release different official results. Either way, even though the problem was limited to the preliminary results, many citizens distrust the official results.
So what should you do?
Voters should keep right on voting. In Minnesota, the vote you cast is the one that will be counted; the ballot scanners are checked against human eyes. And if you stay home and don’t vote, you’re giving up without a fight.
Voters should also stay patient. Delays may occur at polling places and with early results. Those problems might result from a cyber attack. On the other hand, they might just be innocent but annoying snafus, so don’t jump to any conclusions. Either way, it will help to stay calm.
And voters should let their representatives know that we take these challenges seriously. Hardworking election officials deserve all the support the Legislature can provide. In particular, there’s high-priority business left from last session: As soon as the Legislature convenes, it needs to approve the use of existing federal money. From updating software to exercising contingency plans, there’s a lot that Minnesota needs to do.
Max Hailperin is a professor emeritus of mathematics, computer science, and statistics at Gustavus Adolphus College. He earned his Ph.D. at Stanford University and S.B. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2014, he was awarded the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) Medallion Award “in recognition of his service and contributions to election-related technology and legislation.” He participates as a volunteer on the Minnesota secretary of state’s working group on election security.
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