Glitches in Georgia’s High-Tech Electronic Voting System Raise Concerns

Hackers in the machines?

Key Takeaways

  • A new high-tech voting system in Georgia is experiencing technical glitches in advance of an election next week. 
  • Some experts say electronic voting systems are unreliable. 
  • Russian military intelligence and other foreign actors could hack into insecure electronic voting systems, observers say.
A woman feeds her ballot into a voting machine as her sons watch
Samuel Corum / Getty Images 

Georgia’s $100 million high-tech voting system is facing criticism as in-person early voting is scheduled to begin in the state next week.

In the upcoming special election for the Senate, the list of 21 candidates was so long it had to be divided into two screens, according to a report. In some cases, the second column of names do not always appear. The problems in Georgia are a sign of the challenges facing high-technology voting systems across the country as the presidential election arrives next month.

"Election security faces more threats and more scrutiny this year than ever before," Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech, said in an email interview. "A huge portion of the population will vote by mail. On top of that, many electronic voting machines are out of date and not properly secured. Local election officials often lack the resources to audit and secure their systems, many of which run on Windows 7, which is no longer supported by Microsoft."

30,000 Touchscreens Must Be Fixed

The voting problems in Georgia began when officials found a programming error on the state’s voting touchscreens. To fix the problem, the state’s 30,000 new touchscreens, called ballot-marking devices, will need to be reprogrammed. The machines will be used in the US Senate special election that includes senators and representatives from Georgia.

In a hearing last month, Harri Hursti, a cybersecurity and voting system expert, said Georgia's voting machines had "multiple different kinds of irregularities and unexplained behavior" that left him in serious doubt about whether they could operate correctly.

"I'm strongly recommending the hand-marked paper ballots because the system can't be trusted when the chain of custody is broken under the current configuration of the machines and how they're being used," Hursti said.

Unreliable Technology?

The problems in Georgia are a sign that electronic voting technology is too unreliable to be trusted, one expert says.

"High tech voting should only be used in one way: efficient counting," Mark A. Herschberg, who did graduate work at MIT on secure voting systems, said in an email interview. "Optical scanning of paper ballots is an acceptable use of technology because the results can be spot checked by having humans count the paper ballots by hand."

"Election security faces more threats and more scrutiny this year than ever before."

Tensions are running high over the security of the presidential election process. President Trump claims the election will be rife with fraud, but it’s a charge that Democrats and most independent experts dispute.

Meanwhile, some security professionals warn that Russia and other foreign actors could try to interfere with the election, a job made easier if they could hack into electronic voting machines.

"Multiple cyber-espionage actors have targeted organizations associated with the upcoming election, but we remain most concerned by Russian military intelligence, who we believe poses the greatest threat to the democratic process," said John Hultquist from cybersecurity firm FireEye. "APT28’s unique history raises the prospect of follow-on information operations or other devastating activity."

Living With the Risks

Most election security vulnerabilities will not be fixed before the 2020 general election, Bischoff said. "There may well be some amount of fraud and cyberattacks that we can't defend against," he added. Bischoff recommends keeping a paper record of every vote, then checking those records after election day.

"This involves checking a sample of paper ballots by hand for vote tampering," he added. "We should mandate audits in every constituency and not just use them when tampering is suspected. Unfortunately, only three states have audit mandates in place."

People participate in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Sean Rayford / Getty Images

One such place that lacks a paper trail for voting is in Harris County, Texas. The county is expecting a record turnout for the presidential records, with as many as 1.5 million voters. It’s also "the largest jurisdiction in the United States that cannot audit its election results because it uses a voting system that does not produce a paper record," according to a report.

The controversy over the security of electronic voting has the potential to add to the chaos many observers are already expecting. The 2020 election may make the 2000's Bush versus Gore battle, which ultimately ended up in the US Supreme Court, look like a minor scuffle by comparison.