Wary of hackers, US states upgrade voting systems

A voter casting his ballot in the US presidential race in Denver, Colorado, last year. The state will now verify election results via an advanced statistical procedure called a risk-limiting audit.
A voter casting his ballot in the US presidential race in Denver, Colorado, last year. The state will now verify election results via an advanced statistical procedure called a risk-limiting audit.PHOTO: NYTIMES

New equipment, security protocols part of response to Russian meddling last year

WASHINGTON • State election officials, worried about the integrity of their voting systems, are pressing to make them more secure ahead of next year's mid-term elections.

Reacting in large part to Russian efforts to hack the presidential election last year, a growing number of states are upgrading electoral databases and voting machines, and even adding cyber-security experts to their election teams.

The efforts - from both Democrats and Republicans - amount to the largest overhaul of the nation's voting infrastructure since the contested presidential election in 2000 spelled an end to punch-card ballots and voting machines with mechanical levers.

One aim is to prepare for the 2018 and 2020 elections by upgrading and securing electoral databases and voting machines.

Another is to spot and defuse attempts to depress turnout and sway election results by targeting voters with false news reports and social media posts.

West Virginia's elections team has added a cyber-security expert from the state National Guard with a top-secret federal security clearance. Colorado and Rhode Island will now verify election results via an advanced statistical procedure called a risk-limiting audit.

Delaware is moving its voter-registration list off the state's ageing mainframe computer and preparing to replace a 21-year-old electronic voting system that does not leave a paper record of votes to be audited.

Last month, a panel of state, federal and private election experts completed a sweeping revision of guidelines for manufacturers of new voting equipment, the first major overhaul in a dozen years.

While the guidelines are voluntary, they are endorsed by all but three states, so manufacturers effectively must meet the new standards to sell their equipment in most of the nation.

"What's happening is a psy-ops operation," said West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner.

"That's what the Russians are running against us now, trying to erode confidence in our democratic process. We need to assure our citizens that we're aware of these attacks, that we have assistance to counter them, and that when they do occur, don't panic - there are resources to turn to."

In an era of bitter political divisions and election-rules disputes, the effort to make the vote more secure is notably bipartisan and relatively rancour-free.

Republicans like Mr Warner are largely aligned with Democrats on the need to act before the next presidential election in 2020, and there is some support in both parties in Congress for helping to finance changes.

But money remains the biggest obstacle to a complete overhaul.

Many jurisdictions rely on equipment bought after the 2002 Help America Vote Act - Congress' response to the problems exposed by the 2000 presidential election - allotted nearly US$4 billion for new machines and other reforms.

Many of those machines are at or past the end of their service lives.

A number of states and jurisdictions are replacing old equipment, and Los Angeles County - with 5.3 million registered voters - has designed an election system from scratch, and is asking manufacturers to bid on supplying it.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline 'Wary of hackers, US states upgrade voting systems'. Print Edition | Subscribe