Item: When top computer hackers got their hands on the voting hardware that dozens of states use to tabulate the vote, it took them just 90 minutes to infiltrate the brain of the first device. In the next few hours, they cracked every single one of the voting machines.
We’re not talking about nefarious cybercrime here — not sophisticated campaigns by Boris and Natasha. The occasion was DEF CON, a huge convention of happy computer hackers who gathered in Las Vegas for fun and games last weekend. One highlight was the first-ever Voting Village, where fun-seekers could apply their cracking habits to dozens of voting machines acquired by scouting eBay and government surplus auctions.
They met the challenge in 90 minutes. Piece of cake!
Some keyboard wizards broke into the machines via remote access. Others, the hands-on types, honed in on shocking physical vulnerabilities like open ports on the back of machines and stupid passwords like “abcde.” Voting Village volunteers gleefully uncovered previously unknown vulnerabilities in every single one of the machines in short order … then into hacked a few online voter registration databases for good measure.
In a chilling demonstration of what computer geniuses apparently do for giggles, these white-hat hackers (the good guys, who probe to make systems safe) gleefully dismantled the last notion that America’s voting systems are secure. They deftly demonstrated the same kind of arcane digital tricks that less kindly intruders apparently managed in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election.
At least 21 states’ records and systems were breached last year, according to federal investigators. Intruders with darker intentions presumably drew on unlimited financial backing and support, not to mention leisurely undetected hours in the dark. But at DEF CON, our own fun-seeking white hats did much the same thing openly, right out in the sunshine, spurred on by nothing more than the awe of their fellow hackers. And they breached the ramparts in mere minutes.
Really, how could we have been so innocent? Who among us trusted that high-tech would be the final answer … for anything? Yet computerized voting once seemed so clinical, so efficient, so secure, that we were lulled into taking their trustworthiness as a “given.” If dirty work fouled the system on which our democracy depends, surely it would bear the sticky fingerprints of sneaky individual voters gaming the rules.
Wrong. States like North Dakota have spent years cooking up new hurdles to bar the unworthy from voting — like the arcane voter ID law that a federal judge threw out before last year’s election. But while these anxious electoral purists have been trying to root out voters they deemed undesirable, one by one, the genuine threat lurks elsewhere. It turns out they were beating the bushes for suspicious trees, yet missing dark shadows in the forest.
True voter-perpetrated fraud is vanishingly rare. That what the men and women who oversee elections in every state tell us. But DEF CON’s hackers — just for fun — should have turned our confidence in computerized vote-counting on its head.
There is an answer, though — a messier, more intense and embarrassingly retro way to ensure that votes are counted … and can be reconfirmed by canvass and recount. Minnesota, North Dakota and 12 other states (mostly in New England and the Upper Midwest) have defied the siren’s call of turning tabulation over to machines. Instead of taking the easy way out — embracing the purported convenience of touchscreen, networked electronics — we plod along placing our time-tested trust in marking physical ballots by hand, then scanning them.
Then we safeguard them, ready to reconfirm and recount when close elections warrant. As every vote counts, so does physically counting every vote. Just ask Sen. Al Franken, whose victory was finally confirmed six months after the 2008 election. After an excruciating recount, his margin of victory over incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman was just 312 votes … out of 2.9 million cast.
Sure, the relatively cumbersome manner in which Minnesotans and North Dakotans count the votes slows down the media’s breathless horserace-style reporting. But slow and steady, it turns out, can do wonders for America’s peace of mind.
Paper. Pens. Patience. What can it hurt? Is it so unthinkable that, sometimes, civilians might even may fall asleep on Election Night with the leaderboard still in question? At most, it means one more night’s sound sleep. We have the next four years to lie awake and worry.