WSJ's Noonan: We Need To Start Transitioning To Paper Ballots To Combat Russian Hacking

Posted: Feb 12, 2018 2:10 PM
WSJ's Noonan: We Need To Start Transitioning To Paper Ballots To Combat Russian Hacking

No, we don’t need to go to paper ballots because we didn’t get hacked. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan suggested on NBC’s Meet The Press over the weekend that we should start transitioning to paper ballots to avoid a possible partisan crackup in America if an election is contested based on such an event (via RCP):


PEGGY NOONAN: I would say, here's my big concern. We are, as we all know, a deeply divided country. We have these partisan fights, they're very rough and tough, this side watches this, the other side watches this, we're not in the same information flow. One thing that could damage this nation terribly is having a national election where the outcome is unclear because we got hacked.

The states is a national election. By the year 2020, right away we should start saying, "You've got to go paper ballots." We'll figure out all this Internet magic, technological stuff, but for now, paper ballots in America so Ohio knows how it voted.

Yet, vote tallies weren’t hacked; the Department of Homeland Security said so last year. Even the Obama administration said that the “will of the American people” was reflected in the 2016 election, with the DHS noting they did not detect “any increased level of malicious cyberactivity aimed at disrupting our electoral process on Election Day.”

The Washington Post also reported after the 2016 election that it’s virtually impossible to hack an American election:

That's the question at its root: Could hackers change the numbers to change our elections? The Fix spoke by phone and email with Merle King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University to get an answer. In summary: It would be harder than we think — in part because we tend to conflate a number of very different election systems.

"One of the challenges the public has in sorting through the various threads of the current election cycle's stories is understanding the differences between a campaign system, an election system and a voting system," King told us.

The campaign system is the tool set used by candidates or parties to get people elected. The election system covers voter registration systems and other data centralization and is specific to jurisdictions. The voting system is the actual process of voting: the machines, the ballots and the designations of who votes where and on what. Information flows between these systems, but not always in two directions: Campaigns, for example, use voter registration data from the elections system but don't send information back to it. So if a campaign is hacked (or if the Democratic National Committee is), there's no risk to the voter registration database.

Confusing these systems can mean misunderstanding the threat — and the intent of the hackers. Take what happened in Arizona or Illinois, where voter files were lifted from the election system.

"When I hear about a hack, and it's attributed to a Russian IP address, my first reaction is it's identity theft," King said. "They're looking for large lists of critical information that can be used to create identities for credit card theft, etc. I don't instinctively think it's an attack on our election system."

The important point King makes is that hacking the elections system and the voting system are very different in nature and effect. "If the election systems were hacked, there are paper backups of the electors list — every precinct has to maintain a paper copy of the voter list — so you could disrupt an election by attacking those election systems," he said. "But most importantly, you could not alter the outcome of the election by hacking those systems. That would have to occur in the voting system" — the actual process of casting ballots. And that's harder than it seems.

The publication then listed how Florida verifies its results. The 49 other states have a similar process. It’s not as easy as the media and Democrats are making it out to be on television.  

In Pennsylvania, which was a target of Green Party candidate’s Jill Stein’s failed recount effort, no evidence of tampering were found, backing up DHS claims. Also, to actually tamper with an election result in the Keystone State, you’d have to mess with the 4,500 voting machines, which experts say would take four months to do it successfully. That’s only after you’ve been able to break into the secure facility where all the voting machines are stored, which is under 24-hour surveillance (via CBS Pittsburgh):

“We have not seen any evidence that anything has been compromised since we had the machines,” Allegheny County Director of Elections Mark Wolosik said.

There are a lot of reasons for that. Let’s say you could break into the machines and reprogram them to favor a candidate.

The first issue,” Wolosik says is, “They are an island unto themselves. They are not connected to any other machine.”

So any manipulations would have to be one machine at a time, which Dr. Shamos estimates would take 15 minutes per machine, with 4,500 machines.

“To do it for all the machines in the county would take four months,” said Dr. Shamos.

It would also have to be done undetected in a warehouse that is under surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Over the past week, the election machines have moved from the warehouse to the polling places.

“Prior to leaving our warehouse, they are sealed with an individually numbered seal that is recorded,” Wolosik said.

Then, on the morning of the election, the poll workers compare the number to the seal.

“If there are any discrepancies, they are not to use that machine and to call our office immediately,” said Wolosik


One other safeguard – while voting is going on, an independent accounting agency randomly selects a voting machine somewhere in the county and tests it to see if there’s any Trojan horse software running on it.

So, can we bring down the paper ballot-Russia hacking hysteria down a few notches?