Jan 26 2018

States, Counties Seek Voting Tech Upgrades Amid Security Concerns

States and localities recognize vulnerabilities of outdated systems after 2016 presidential election.

With the 2016 presidential election bringing voting cybersecurity to the fore, many states and localities have been looking at innovative, technology-driven approaches to shore up voting machine security.

There are growing concerns about the integrity of ballots nationwide following reports that hackers attempted to infiltrate voting machines in 21 states ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Those concerns are not unfounded, according to a 2017 report published by DEF CON, which unveiled the vulnerabilities of commonly used voting machines in the U.S.

To address these weaknesses, several states are taking action to upgrade systems and ensure voting integrity for citizens everywhere. Rhode Island, for example, upgraded its systems to use a cellular connection with a double-encrypted signal that better protects against remote hacking. With worries of election hacking growing, more states are expected to follow suit to make cybersafety a priority at the polls.

SIGN UP: Get more news from the StateTech newsletter in your inbox every two weeks!

California Sets Sights on Upgrades to Legacy Voting Tech

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently included $134.3 million to install new voting systems statewide in his 2018-2019 state budget proposal.

"Aging voting systems are one of the gravest threats to the integrity of our elections," says California Secretary of State Alex Padilla in a statement.

A March 2017 report by the California Legislative Analyst's Office found that the state had several voting systems badly in need of upgrades. In one case, the LAO wrote, a county's voting system had a failed part that no longer was supported by the manufacturer or easy to replace. The county purchased a replacement part through eBay. In another example cited by the LAO, a county relied on the same voting system it used in the 1990s, which counted on computers that operate on an outdated operating system that no longer receives free security upgrades or other support from the manufacturers.

To remedy many of these issues, the LAO report recommended one-time funding to replace the aging voting systems.

"Both of these examples raise serious concerns about the security of the voting system as well as the possibility of a catastrophic failure of voting systems in counties," the LAO wrote.

Oakland County, Mich., Ups Accuracy with New Polling Tech

It's not just states that are seeking out the funding to upgrade voting equipment. Joseph Rozell, director of elections for the County of Oakland, Michigan, says that new voting equipment introduced in his county in 2017 replaced aging equipment that operated in an outdated and unsupported environment.

The replacement of voting machines there was part of a statewide initiative that used funding from the federal Help America Vote Act, which offers support to governments seeking to upgrade and secure legacy voting systems, says county clerk Lisa Brown.

The new equipment, installed in August ahead of local elections, uses digital scanning technology, rather than analog scanning technology, Rozell says.

"All of our ballots are stored in sealed containers and our system is completely a closed system," Rozell says. "There is no part of it that touches the internet."

The new system has already made a difference for cities within Oakland County. The new equipment's accuracy was showcased when a recount was required in an August city council race in Pontiac. The recount did not change the results by a single vote, Rozell says.

During previous recounts — before the new voting system was installed — the winners did not change, but the count was almost always off by a few votes, Brown says.

New York Investigates Blockchain's Polling Potential

Blockchain, which is used to ensure the security of cryptocurrency, including bitcoin, has great promise for governments because it can increase transparency and accountability for IT purchasing. But it's potential doesn't end there.

New York state Assemblyman Clyde Vanel introduced legislation this year to study how blockchain could help secure voter information and record votes.

"We figured, if it's good enough to secure your high-value assets, like bitcoin, it's good enough for elections," Vanel says, who chairs a subcommittee on the internet and new technologies.

Vanel says he was moved to consider the innovative solution after the state lost 120,000 voter records ahead of the presidential primary election in April 2016, a matter that is still under investigation by state lawmakers.

It's possible that blockchain's unchangeable ledger capability could have been the answer to safeguarding this data.

"We have to use the up-to-date technology to be able to protect this most sacred institution," he says.

ipopba/Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT