If there is a silver lining in any of the public speculation about a “rigged” election in this year’s Presidential campaign, it might be that voters will ask exactly how they can be certain that their election choices are protected.
Donald Trump speculates that forces are already aligning against him in this election. But most experts say stealing a Presidential election, especially this one, would be next to impossible, because of the de-centralized way America conducts its voting.
“It’s simply not very plausible,” says Dr. Roger Johnston, the retired chief of Argonne National Laboratory’s Vulnerability Assessment Lab. “Stealing a Presidential election is not about defeating the national voting system, but rather just defeating the local election security.”
And for that to happen, he says an election would have to be so close, the malevolent forces would only have to target a few key precincts in a few key states. Like Florida in 2000, where the Bush-Gore margin was razor thin.
“Maybe a dozen voting machines in the State of Florida, and that would have turned the election,” he notes.
Those perfect conditions, one or two close states which could be tipped either way, don’t appear to exist in 2016.
In truth, the United States does not really conduct a national vote per se. Rather, a President is elected through a series of thousands of local elections, administered through a total of 8200 election entities nationwide. Each uses a variety of voting systems, ranging from paper ballots, to electronic touchscreens, even the U.S. Mail.
It would be impossible to hack them all.
Take Chicago, for example. The city has its own election board, one of 109 election entities in the State of Illinois. (100 are county clerks; two more, Dupage and Peoria are county boards of election; another seven, Aurora, Bloomington, Chicago, Danville, East St. Louis, Galesburg, and Rockford, are city election boards).
Chicago uses two different systems: paper ballots which are fed into an optical scanner, and electronic touchscreens. As election day begins, both run a paper tape to demonstrate their memories are empty and contain no votes.
“They can see the zero tape that was printed out before the polls opened,” says election board spokesman James Allen. “And that tape is printed and opened to poll watchers at the end of the day.”
The machines are sealed prior to delivery with numbered seals on the doors where the memory cartridges reside. Election judges must certify that those seals are unbroken. Then, each time a person votes, a visible paper tape shows that voter’s choices.
At day’s end in Chicago, the data pack from the optical scanner, and a USB drive from the touchscreen, are plugged into a vote consolidator which transmits that precinct’s totals via cellular connection to election headquarters.
“That’s only a temporary transmission so we can get our results out to the news media as quickly as possible,” Allen says. “There’s generally a concern about the legitimacy of the election if there’s a delay in the results.”
Those memory packs and USB drives are then taken to transfer stations where the votes are fed again via hard line. Those two systems, plus the paper tape, must agree.
“Inevitably, the final record of any election is the paper trail,” Allen notes. “We have a paper trail for every ballot cast in the City of Chicago.”
After the Chicago vote is certified, the results are transmitted electronically to the State Board of Elections, which receives a hard copy as well. Those must match. After that process is completed for all 109 election entities, the appropriate electors meet at the State Capitol and cast their vote for president, in a process overseen by Secretary of State Jesse White. (That takes place, the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December).
The Secretary of State then reports the results of the Illinois electors to the President of the United States Senate (Vice President Joseph Biden). The Senate President opens those votes in early January and reads them aloud to a joint session of the incoming Congress. If there is a clear winner, the election is officially certified. If not, the vote is conveyed to the House of Representatives, where each state gets one vote. (The Senate chooses the Vice President, with each senator getting a vote).
Federal rules mandate that the President and Vice President cannot come from the same state.
So is it foolproof?
No, says Johnston. Indeed, he is skeptical of most security systems, and generally believes election security is rife with holes.
“Clearly, our election security isn’t very good,” he says. “The countermeasures really are not sufficient to deal with what potential attacks would look like.”
Again, Johnston says stealing a federal election would be next to impossible because of the scope. But locally, he says, he is especially troubled by the fact that equipment is transported to polling places weeks ahead of time, then left largely unguarded.
“So it’s sitting around in the elementary school hallway or the Church basement,” he says. “We don’t typically have a good chain of custody.”
Johnston generally gives good marks to Chicago, but says by and large security is not the proper focus for officials who are otherwise experts on conducting an election. Sealed drives are a good idea, he says, but they can be defeated by a truly determined criminal.
“It looks good on the surface, it’s probably better than not having anything at all, but is it serious security? No, not really.”
Johnston has long contended that no matter what the system, any kind of security is only as good as the people using it.
“The higher tech it is, the easier it is to defeat with low-tech methods,” he says. “What you want to do is make it so difficult, so expensive, and so likely that the person doing so will be detected, that it’s not worth the risk.”