This is what secure tabulation looks like

Up to now, the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s interest in elections security has focused on the voter-registration system (WisVote), rather than the vote-tabulation system (the voting machines). When the Commission has paid attention to concerns about voting-machine security, it typically has been for only as long as it took commissioners to ask the vendors “Tell us how to refute these concerns.”

The Commission has also made a habit of limiting its own information sources. Earlier this year when they felt the need for advice on election security, they convened an Election Security Advisory Panel consisting entirely (not making this up) of county and municipal clerks. That was a revealing indication of the Commission’s level of interest in seeking advice from anyone else … say, disinterested IT professionals or highly interested voters.

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But the Commission’s interest in voting-machine system security may be showing signs of life.

Last week, the Commission announced the formation of a new Elections Security Council of “federal, state and local partners” that will “formalize collaboration between these key groups and the public to improve communication and maximize election security.”

As usual, the Commission’s idea of “key groups” is limited to government officials. It’s also possible their idea of ‘communication’ remains limited to outgoing messages to reassure voters that all is well.

Oh, well, it’s a start. Give the new council a chance to join the fight for voting-machine security. We’ll know more after their first meeting on October 16, when they will discuss whether and how they want to involve any stakeholders.

Realistically, though, it’s possible this new council is mostly for show. At its June 2019 meeting, the Commission responded to voters’ and experts’ concerns about the security flaws of a ballot-marking device by 1) approving sale of the machine in Wisconsin and 2) hiring a public-relations firm to reassure voters with a $341,000 campaign paid with federal election-security funds. For that amount of money, the firm should darn well have advised the Commission of the PR value of something like this new council.

It’s also possible the new council will — as the Commission itself has always done — focus its efforts exclusively on the voter registration system (WisVote) rather than voting-machine system security. Nothing in the press release specifically indicated the Commission is looking to expand its election-security efforts beyond WisVote.

Nevertheless, just in case this council represents an awakening, its members should know what a secure tabulation system would look like.

So here’s a welcome gift to the new Elections Security Council:
A list of what would be in place if our voting-machine system was secure.

Most of the elements listed below are common sense, not rocket science. It’s just sensible, prudent management of a highly critical IT system. Some elements are present for Wisconsin. Others are missing. State and local election officials cannot create all the missing elements, which means they need to look for ways to make up for their absence.

If any members of the new council are curious to know which of these elements are in place and which are missing, multiple nationallyrespected electionsecurity authorities stand ready to share critical insights. Those experts’ interest in security is unaffected by financial interests and by any reflexive defense of the status quo.

In a secure vote-tabulation system:

Voting equipment manufacturers would…

  • Manufacture only those systems that are as secure as possible given current technology and customers’ budgets.
  • Manufacture only systems that allow voters to verify that their votes were recorded accurately on paper (verified ballots), and that allow local officials to verify the votes were tabulated accurately (auditable ballots).
  • Cooperate fully with the federal Department of Homeland Security monitoring of the companies’ own computers and security practices.
  • Cooperate fully with state and local governments’ security requirements.

The federal government would…

  • Promulgate strong, clear, and frequently updated regulations for secure, auditable voting systems, and for the independence of private testing labs.
  • Actively and rigorously apply those regulations when certifying new systems or updates.
  • Actively monitor and enforce compliance with those regulations.

The state government would…

  • Through law and regulations, implement strong security and auditability requirements for voting systems used in this state, and rigorously enforce those through certification.
  • Provide guidance and technical assistance to local governments related to voting-machine system security, so that vendors are not their customers’ only source of information and advice.
  • Adopt laws and regulations for local governments’ voting-system security practices.
  • Monitor local compliance with required voting-system security practices, and have the ability to correct poor practices.
  • Coordinate strong post-election tabulation audits, involving all the counties’ boards of canvassers, that verify the correct winners in all statewide races before certification.

County government election officials would…

  • Follow federal and state requirements for securing county elections-management system hardware and software.
  • Have professional IT staff capable of and assigned to working with the voting-system vendor on security-related matters. (If not county staff, an independent contractor who is unaffiliated with voting-machine sales and service.)
  • On Election Night, obtain electronic election records (including CVR and digital ballot images) from municipalities. Maintain strong internal control and to support voter confidence and ballot security, post digital ballot images to the internet within 24 hours of poll closing.
  • During the county canvass, use the paper ballots to verify that the computers identified the correct winners. If problems are found, correct results before certification.
  • Between elections, audit various election-security practices and take action to improve whenever any issues are found.

Municipal government election officials would…

  • Maintain year-round strong internal control of marked and unmarked ballots; other election records (e.g., CVR, digital ballot images); and voting-system hardware and software.
  • Maintain equipment according to manufacturer recommendations. Routinely and reliably inspect equipment inside and out for signs of tampering or malfunction; take action to correct any issues noted.
  • Conduct strong pre-election testing of both tabulators and ballot-marking devices; take action to correct any problems noted. Make sure all voting machines are equally reliable and operable.
  • Train election workers in how to maintain security; how to notice trouble signs; how to document and respond to trouble signs or lapses.
  • Monitor performance of elections workers to ensure that no bad habits develop, that any departures from standard procedures are quickly noted and corrected.

Voters would…

  • Volunteer to serve as poll workers and hand-counters for audits.
  • Pay attention to election security issues, getting neither too excitable nor too complacent.
  • Be willing to hold their local officials accountable for verified accurate election results.

PT Barnum-style election security

Reporter: “Does it bother you that what you’re showing is humbug?” 
PT Barnum: “Do these smiles seem humbug? It doesn’t matter where they come from if the joy is real.” 

I recalled this dialogue from The Greatest Showman as I was observing a pre-election voting machine test in the City of Elroy, Wisconsin on Monday, August 6.

Conducted in every municipality before every election, these tests serve some necessary functions.

But as a safeguard against hackingthey are humbug—as authentic as a bearded lady whose facial hair is hanging from strings looped around her ears. 

Nevertheless, because the tests make some voters and reporters feel confident, they are touted as a security measure.

I’ve observed more than two dozen of these tests over the years. The ones I observed this week were typical. Even if you’re not an IT professional, I’ll bet you can pick out why these tests don’t protect Election-Day results from hacking—whether the hacker is an Internet cyber-crook or a corrupt voting-machine company insider.  

Here, try it. Start by predicting what the hacker might try to do. First, do you think the hacker would make the malicious code miscount every single vote or only some votes?

You guessed ‘only some,’ and experts agree. When a blue-ribbon election-security task force convened by the Brennan Center for Justice worked out how a hacker would steal a statewide race in the imaginary State of Pennasota, they calculated that no hacker would likely alter more than 7.5% of the votes, or a little more than 1 in every 13. So if you want to detect hacking, your set of fake ballots—your ‘test deck’—should contain enough ballots to give each candidate at least 13 valid votes.

But Wisconsin municipal clerks typically create test decks with only one vote for each candidate—enough to catch only hacks that affect every single vote.

Second, do you suppose the hacker might instead allow the machines to count votes accurately all day, and then simply flip the candidates’ vote totals at the end of the day to give his guy the biggest total? You probably guessed yes, he might. So you would need to create a test deck that has a winner in each race, a different number of votes for each candidate.

Wisconsin municipal clerks’ pre-election test results typically contain a lot of ties–the same number of votes for each candidate in each race. Those test decks would not detect any vote-flipping hacks.

Finally, would the hacker’s malicious code kick in whenever the machine was turned on, or only on Election Day? This one is easy. Hacks would never trigger on any day other than Election Day.

This is the fatal flaw of pre-election testing as a safeguard against hacking. Hackers can program their code to trigger only when the calendar says it’s Election Day…or only when ballots are inserted at a rate typical of Election Day…or only when the machine has been operating continuously for more than eight hours…or only on some other telltale sign that real votes, not test votes, are being counted. As the Brennan Center Task Force report put it, trying to use tests like these to detect hacking would create a constantly escalating arms race between election officials trying to make the test look like a normal Election Day and hackers finding new ways to detect a test situation.

As a result, the Task Force didn’t bother even to mention pre-election testing as a safeguard in its list of six security recommendations.

Many of Wisconsin’s pre-election tests do not hide the fact that the machines are running in test mode, not Election-Day mode. The photo at right is a close-up of the voter-verifiable paper trail from an AVC Edge voting machine, programmed by Command Central, being tested in Juneau County before the August 14, 2018 primary. Notice that the voting machine printed “PRE-LAT PAPER RECORD” at the top of the ballot. ‘LAT’ is the computer professionals’ term for “logic and accuracy testing,” a basic routine whenever software has been updated. (I don’t know why Command Central calls it “PRE-LAT”.)

This machine clearly knows it is counting test ballots, not real ones. Operating in test mode doesn’t render the test useless for things like catching innocent programming errors.  But:

It is humbug for election clerks 
to fool themselves, or to fool the public, 
into thinking these pre-election tests 
provide any protection against hacking.
 

If we want to stop being fed humbug, we have to stop falling for it. If your local election officials tell you:

  • Election results are protected by pre-election voting machine tests“, tell them that you know Wisconsin’s pre-election voting machine tests could not detect hacking any less obvious than that which in 2010 elected a cartoon robot to the Washington, DC school board.
  • Election results are protected by keeping the machines unconnected from the Internet,” tell them that you know that they have no idea about what happens to the software before it comes into their control.
  • Election results are protected by federal and state certification,” tell them you know that the software has been copied and updated many times since it was certified, and that no one has ever or will ever inspect the software that will count your votes on Election Day.
  • Election results are protected by the audits we already do,” tell them that audits completed only after the canvass cannot possibly protect results they have already declared final (‘certified’).

The solution: Contact your county election office. In Milwaukee County, that’s the Elections Commission; in other counties, it’s the county clerk. Tell them: 
“This voter is done with humbug. I know that one and only one safeguard can protect our final election results. 
Use our paper ballots to detect and correct any electronic miscounts before you declare election results final. Start this November.”

Don’t expect your county official to be stubborn; several are already planning to check accuracy before they certify the November results as final. Find out if yours is one.

But if your county officials are not now planning to begin auditing, don’t accept excuses. They got a memo on August 1, 2018 from the Wisconsin Elections Commission that made it clear: “A post-election audit is a tool that could be implemented to confirm that results have been tabulated accurately,” and “post-election audits of the results may be conducted prior to certification of the canvass.” The Commission even gave them basic instructions they can follow.

No more humbug 
about election security. 
Tell your county officials 
today: “Time’s up. 
Pre-certification audits. 
This fall.”


You can also help by donating to help Wisconsin Election Integrity get the no-humbug word out to voters, officials, and media through our 2018 publicity campaign.

And you can email the Wisconsin Elections Commission at elections@wi.gov to encourage them to mandate pre-certification audits in every county, at their September 25 meeting.electionshackingWisconsinauditssecurityvoting machineselection technology