Ever since Pennsylvania began using computerized voting machines a decade ago, critics have worried that hackers could throw an election by shifting votes from one column to another.
But that’s far from the only fear in 2016, a year when Illinois’ voter registration database has been hacked and Democratic Party emails were purportedly raided by Russian hackers.
“People have talked about Russia supporting Donald Trump,” said University of Iowa computer science professor Douglas Jones, who co-wrote a 2012 book about election security. “But I think it would be to their advantage just to have a chaotic election, one that would weaken whoever won. … And if you wanted to cook an election, you don’t have to do anything massive.”
In the 2000 presidential election, for example, irregularities from a handful of Florida counties put the nation in a monthlong limbo and cast a pall over the proclaimed winner, George W. Bush.
Concerns this year are more likely to focus on Pennsylvania. Two-thirds of its counties, including vote-rich Allegheny and Philadelphia, use touch-screen voting machines for which there is no paper ballot. If a hacker corrupted or deleted those machines’ vote counts, there would be no physical ballots to refer to.
“There are six or 10 states that very heavily use paperless touch-screen machines,” said Andrew Appel, a Princeton University professor who studies voting machine vulnerabilities. “Of them, Pennsylvania is the biggest swing state."
Those machines, perhaps ironically, were bought as part of a national initiative to restore faith in voting after the 2000 election. But researchers have found vulnerabilities in the new equipment, including the iVotronic system used by Allegheny and 23 other counties. In 2007, for example, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania determined that a hacker could disrupt the machines with a handheld electronic device and an ordinary magnet.
“I think it took us four or five minutes to reset the machine’s software with a Palm Pilot,” said Micah Sherr, a Penn researcher who now teaches at Georgetown University. Although shifting large numbers of votes without being detected would be difficult, he said, “disrupting an election at certain precincts is a lot easier.”
Allegheny County elections chief Mark Wolosik took such concerns in stride.
“I don’t want to have braggadocio,” he said, “but we’ve done extensive testing, and I haven’t seen any evidence that anything was tampered with.”
Among the tests: Before each election, a third-party firm pulls the “firmware” instructions hardwired into 20 randomly selected machines, comparing each line of code with an original version to ensure it hasn’t been altered. All 4,600 machines run automatic trials to to ensure they are tabulating correctly. Some are also tested manually.
On Election Day, randomly chosen machines are selected for a “parallel test” in which an outside firm casts ballots to see how the machine counts them. “There’s never been a problem,” Mr. Wolosik said.
The iVotronic’s maker, Nebraska-based Electronic Systems & Software, responded to interview requests with a statement touting “security and performance standards that were developed by Scientists, Academicians and Election Officials.”
Dave Eckhardt credits Mr. Wolosik for “going above and beyond what other people are doing.” But the Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist is vice president of advocacy group Vote Allegheny, which has long been wary of paperless machines. The county’s tests won’t catch every attack, he said, and “no other county is doing this. Most of the state is acting on faith.”
“Motivated, trained people are attacking the U.S. every day,” he said. “Will they attack your county’s machines? Probably not. But if they do, how prepared are we?”
Mr. Eckhardt and others prefer “optical scan” machines of the kind used in Indiana County. Voters there mark ballots by filling in ovals, like students taking standardized tests, and feed them into a reader. The physical ballot is retained, ready for counting in case electronic records are corrupted or lost.
“We’ve never had a complaint” about the system, said Robin Maryai, Indiana County’s chief clerk in charge of elections.
Other officials using the iVotronic say they perform basic “logic and accuracy” tests, but not the more rigorous checks Mr. Wolosik oversees.
“I can’t imagine our poll workers allowing someone to do anything behind the voting equipment,” said Beth Lechman, Westmoreland County’s elections director. County officials check voting machine firmware, and although they don’t conduct independent testing on Election Day, poll workers and county overseers provide “a check-and-balance system,” she said.
Greene County elections director Tina Kiger said that although “we’ve had very few concerns” with the iVotronic, the county would consider buying optical-scan machines. “That seems to be where things are going,” she said.
But the immediate priority is the existing machines. In light of the national hacks, the Department of Homeland Security offered to help states assess election threats, an invitation Pennsylvania’s Department of State has accepted. The state has also sent advisories to county offices outlining recommended security practices. And Mr. Wolosik said his office will distribute over 500,000 paper ballots to polling places in case of problems.
Mr. Jones, the Iowa professor, said officials have to walk a tightrope, preparing for the worst without undermining public confidence.
“I get emails from the conspiracy fringe listing legitimate sources, including me, saying these aren’t potential weaknesses, but things that have already been exploited,” he said.
Even newspaper stories like this one risk sowing doubts when there is little time to address them.
“I don’t mean to criticize you,” Mr. Sherr said, “but a few months before an election is a terrible time to write about this.”
Chris Potter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.