Election Integrity Resurfaces as a National Issue, Thanks to Vladimir Putin

The very first blogging I did was in 2007 when I covered the trial involving a public records request for voting records of Pima County elections. Sitting in the courtroom beside Mike Bryan, then the proprietor and sole writer on Blog For Arizona, I furiously scribbled down a play-by-play of the proceedings while Bryan, a lawyer, wrote the analysis. By the end of the week, I asked Mike if I could write about education and whatever else I wanted on BfA. After giving me a short grilling to see if I had anything worth saying, he said yes and handed me the keys to the kingdom (Me: "Mike, do you want to look over what I'm writing before I put it online?" Mike: "No, here's the password. Write away.")

The specific issue at the trial was the 2006 Regional Transportation election. The results showed the measure passing with about 60 percent of the vote, but some people questioned whether the vote count was legit, and they wanted access to all relevant materials so they could check the results for themselves. During the trial and afterward, I developed a layman's understanding of the concerns of the local Election Integrity Committee and others around the country who were certain that our elections could be, and possibly had been, stolen.

The local and national work has continued since then, mainly out of the media spotlight. Now election integrity concerns are making the news because people are wondering if Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to put his finger on the U.S. election scales. Last week an article spoke of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson's concerns that our electronic voting systems could be vulnerable to sophisticated hackers here and abroad, and Wired Magazine published an article, America's Electronic Voting Machines are Scarily Easy Targets.

I hope these issues get the national, public airing they deserve. There's little question that voting machines as well as vote transmission and counting systems can be hacked to change election results. The most pertinent question right now is, how can the systems be made as secure as possible going forward, and how can the results be double-checked to make sure they represent the will of the voters?

I won't go into the problems with our current voting systems in any detail, but there are lots of areas of possible weakness. The electronic machines people use to enter their votes can be reprogrammed to add votes for one candidate and take them away from another. The computers that tabulate the results from the individual voting machines can also be manipulated to produce incorrect results. And it's very difficult to detect or stop anyone with sufficient knowledge and access from changing the election tallies. In studies I've read where experts are divided into two teams, one determined to hack an imaginary election and the other determined to stop them, the hackers have mostly won.

In places like Arizona where voting machines produce paper ballots, election results can be checked after the fact by counting a sampling of the ballots, though to assure that the vote check is valid, there has to be a scrupulous chain of custody of the ballots and a rigorous sampling procedure. But in states with no physical evidence of the votes, where the machines don't produce paper ballots, the machine tally is the final word, with no way of checking its accuracy.

Could Putin or another foreign bad actor change the results of our elections? If they were determined enough and the cybersecurity was lax enough, the answer is definitely yes. Could local or state elections be hacked by local, home-grown bad actors? Again, the answer is yes, if they can gain the proper access.

A "No-this-isn't-voter-fraud" Note: This kind of election manipulation has nothing to do with the paper mache "voter fraud" boogeyman Republicans have created to scare people, where they maintain, with no evidence, that people vote multiple times or non-citizens register and vote. That's a ploy to justify their voter suppression initiatives like voter ID. This is about changing the results of elections even if everyone who is legally registered and wants to vote is able to do so.