The election technology used in the United States is about as secure as you can make a system, though it was hardly designed that way.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys
One of the most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history is finally drawing to a close, and the chorus from most people I talk with, whether they support Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, is that they will be glad when the circus this one has become is finished. But now there is talk of the election being somehow rigged, and specifically candidate Donald Trump saying because of that, he may not be able to accept the results.
Questioning the cornerstone of our democracy and the peaceful transition of power that has existed in this country for the past 238 years aside, the election technology used in the United States is about as secure as you can make a system, though it was hardly designed that way. In fact, there was not much of an overall design at all.
» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
The federal government does not oversee elections. Instead, that is left to state and local governments. There are over 9,000 election jurisdictions in this country, and while some technology similarities exist, most of the systems have been developed independently.
That alone would make “rigging” or hacking a national election a near-impossible task. A hacker would need to attack thousands of election systems at the same time during the very limited window when they were connected to the internet, if they were connected at all—many are not.
That is not to say the federal government is taking the security of the election lightly. Back in August, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson held a conference call with election officials across the country, stressing the importance of securing voting technology and offering federal assistance for that task. DHS now says 30 states accepted the offer for help in monitoring against threats to their voting systems.
Other federal agencies are also contributing aid. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, working with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, has developed technical Voluntary Voting System Guidelines to help ensure the security of voting systems. These commonsense procedures and guidelines would work with almost any voting system, so it’s a safe bet they are being followed or at least consulted nationwide.
And it’s not just the federal government that is concerned about delivering a fair election. Most state election boards have statements about the importance of the election process and the steps they are taking to ensure everything runs smoothly.
In fact, the board representing my home state of Maryland has this front and center on its website, declaring that “Simply put, Maryland’s election systems are secure, have built-in redundancies and have been subject to security testing.”
Digging a little deeper, Maryland is doubling down on the use of paper ballots this year, though they are being used in conjunction with a somewhat automated system. My state got burned a few years ago when it issued touchscreen voting computers and the devices turned out to be a little buggy, especially when their screens started to go bad and would not always accept input. The new system is designed to be secure and fault-proof from the ground up.
I plan to cast my vote first thing Thursday morning when early voting opens in Maryland. When I do, I will be marking a paper ballot with my choices. It will then be scanned by a machine with an encrypted memory device. Each scanner uploads its vote totals to a secure server, which is never connected to the internet. In fact, no part of the system ever interacts with any device outside of that closed system.
As a final backup, my paper ballot will be collected and stored at a secure location. In the event of a total system meltdown, Maryland will still be able to count all its ballots by hand, a laborious and slow process to be sure, but one that ensures every vote would still count.
Other states are implementing similar technologies to protect the right of their citizens to vote in this election, and every local, state and federal election official I have met in my many years of reporting has been a committed individual who takes their awesome responsibility very seriously.
I’m not saying someone, or some group, may not try to disrupt our election. But to preemptively claim the election is rigged, while a nice little prima facie argument and a good soundbite, completely cracks up under the most basic scrutiny.
The election is secure. It’s not rigged. Go out there and make your vote count.