Is New Hampshire Prepared for a Cyber Hack in This Year’s Election?

With the recent hacks on voter registration databases in Illinois and Arizona, many are concerned about the possible implications of a rigged election.

Whether from a foreign country or voting fraud in the United States, this is a narrative that Republican nominee Donald Trump is pushing and even encouraging his followers to “keep an eye out” on Election Day for any funny business.

But the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office says they are ready for Granite Staters to cast their votes in November.

“The concern nationwide is that these electronic databases can be hacked,” said David Scanlan, deputy secretary of state. “The only database we have that is electronic is our centralized voter registration database and that has significant security protection and there are firewalls involved not only at the state level, but also at the federal level. We’re monitoring the database frequently for any evidence of attempts to get into it.”

And what about attempts of hackers interfering in presidential or statewide elections? We’ve already witnessed it this year with the Democratic National Committee scandal by suspected Russian hackers.

But for states that use “Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machines,” a rigged election could be a possibility. But in New Hampshire, that’s less likely since the state uses a paper ballot.

“All votes are cast on a paper ballot and more than half of the towns ballots are counted with an optical scan machine,” Scanlan said. “They are all stand alone units in each polling place and are not hooked up together.”

The AccuVote scanning machines (not to be confused with the AccuVote touchscreen voting machines) are widely used around the country and are only meant to help tally votes. New Hampshire is one of 17 states that is using paper ballots exclusively this election cycle.

Five states — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina — are the only ones using electronic voting without a paper audit trail. Cybersecurity experts are raising an alarm about how easy such systems could be hacked.

Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton University, was the focus of an article in POLITICO Magazine titled “How to Hack and Election in 7 Minutes.” He bought an old voting machine — one that’s still being used in places like Louisiana, New Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania — and he and some of his students quickly hacked the machine.

“If you have a paperless, touchscreen voting machine, the computer program in there claims to record whatever the voters choices are, but at the end of the election day, when it reports results, what it reports, is really at the choice of whoever got to install the computer program in there,” he said Tuesday on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC.

Even though the system seems outdated, Appel advocated for the use of paper ballots.

“We have to trust our accurate count of the votes, even if the computer is hacked,” he said. “The best way to do that is on optical scan paper ballots. Even if that machine is hacked you have a sealed ballot box, full of various pieces of paper that people marked.”

Everyone remembers the vote-counting controversy of the 2000 election, infamous for the Florida hanging chads resulting in the Supreme Court deciding between George W. Bush and Al Gore. But some might not remember the Help America Vote Act that was passed in 2002 as a result of the incident, which worked to phase out the punch card system and replace it with electronic voting systems.

However, as more technological issues and hacks have happened, states are starting to return to the basics of paper ballots, said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting Foundation — a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization advocating for accuracy and transparency of elections.

“Sometimes new technology is better and in this instance, paper has some reliability,” she told NH Journal. “It’s tried and true. It does give you that physical record that you can use for audits and it brings a lot of security and reliability.”

Smith said New Hampshire continues to rank as one of the best states in election preparedness and continues to use a set of best practices to ensure voting security and accuracy.

Verified Voting along with the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic and Common Cause, released a study in 2012 that found New Hampshire, Minnesota, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin to be the five states that are best prepared to catch voting system problems and to protect voters from disenfranchisement due to equipment failures.

“If your scanner breaks down, it can get counted later,” Smith said. “If you have electronic voting machines, you have to have emergency paper ballots anyway, so already using paper ballots is something that works really well.”

Still, there are some who believe more can be done to make sure all votes are counted properly in the Granite State.

Some towns and wards count each ballot by hand and others use the optical scanning machines to tally votes. Activists want more continuity at all the polling stations. They also criticize the age of the scanners and if they really are as efficient as a simple hand count.

A 2015 study released by the Brennan Center of Justice noted that New Hampshire was using scanners that are more than 15 years old.

A few advocates want moderators at polling stations that use optical scanners to do a parallel hand count to ensure accuracy. New Hampshire currently has no state requirement for post-election audits.

Although not an audit, Scanlan said the state does more voting recounts than any other state in the country. They’ve done recounts in 2008 and in 2012, though nothing suspicious was uncovered.

The Town of Derry is taking steps to introduce audits into its voting process. Town Moderator Mary Till at a Town Council meeting said she will require a random audit of one of the machines of the contested races for a hand-count audit.

“I will be instituting a new process this year with respect to ensuring the integrity of the vote count,” Till said at the meeting. “As we all are learning, hacking of political sites is becoming more common and worrisome when it’s done by people outside this country.”

Smith said she doesn’t think electronic voting will take hold in the United States until more research is done and voters can be ensured that their information is private and secure.

“While a lot of millennials are tech-savvy, a lot of them have a strong perception on security and privacy,” she said. “They change their settings on Facebook and other social media systems more than any other generation, so it’s not entirely clear that their preference in the future is going to be to vote online.”

Author: Kyle Plantz

Kyle Plantz is a reporter with NH Journal.

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