It’s been almost two years since Russian military hackers attempted to hijack computers used by both local election officials and VR Systems, an e-voting company that helps make Election Day possible in several key swing states. Since then, reports detailing the potent duo of inherent technical risk and abject negligence have made election security a national topic. In November, millions of Americans will vote again — but despite hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid poured into beefing up the security of your local polling station, tension between experts, corporations, and the status quo over what secure even means is leaving key questions unanswered: Should every single vote be recorded on paper, so there’s a physical trail to follow? Should every election be audited after the fact, as both a deterrent and check against fraud? And, in an age where basically everything else is online, should election equipment be allowed anywhere near the internet?
The commonsense answer to this last question — that sounds like a terrible idea — belies its complexity. On the one hand, the public now receives regular, uniform warnings from the intelligence community, Congress, and other entities privy to sensitive data: Bad actors abroad have and will continue to try to use computers to penetrate or disrupt our increasingly computerized vote. Just this past March, the Senate Intelligence Committee recommended that “[a]t a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and no WiFi capability.” Given that a hacker on the other side of the planet will have trouble connecting to a box in Virginia that’s not connected to anything at all, it stands to reason that walling off these sensitive systems from the rest of the world will make them safer.
Tammy Patrick, a former Arizona election officer and current senior adviser at the Democracy Fund, which, like The Intercept, is funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, said that although she isn’t aware of a jurisdiction that “connects their voting equipment using Wi-Fi,” other wireless technologies are sometimes built in. Additionally, computers only one degree removed from the digital ballot boxes themselves will often connect to the internet, Patrick explained. “What does happen more frequently is that the vote storage unit may be removed [from the voting machine] and used to modem in results,” she said.