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Local machines secure but not glitch proof

By Clay Winowiecki - cwinowiecki@chronicle-tribune.com

How susceptible are Grant County vote totals to fraud by hackers?

Not very. But according to Eugene Spafford, an adviser for the Verified Voting Foundation, there are still some risks.

In Grant County, the 105 voting machines in use this elelction are provided by MicroVote, a company out of Indianapolis.

“At no time are those machines hooked up to any internet,” said Kathy Foy, election deputy for the County Clerk. “So no one can hack into them from outside through the internet.”

The computers that tabulate the votes are also not connected to the internet, so they cannot be hacked via the internet either, according to Foy.

However, there are other ways machines can be hacked, according to Spafford.

It is possible for an insider to introduce software to voting machines, even if they are offline, which can change voting results, he said.

The Grant County Election Office tries to avoid this by locking the voting machines when not in use.

When machines are set up at the polling locations, poll workers also run a software to make sure no votes have been cast prematurely, according to Foy.

Should a machine freeze up or glitch, each machine has a system that backs up votes. This event occurred last year, Foy said. When it happened, the voting choices were successfully recovered and the machine was replaced without incident.

“To someone who is interested (in hacking machines), they are fairly resistant because the machines are supervised by voting judges,” Spafford said. “It’s hard to do more than disrupt a single machine and even at that it might be difficult.”

A most common problem is that the voting machines are outdated.

“The majority of voting machines are more than 15 years old, some even longer,” Spafford said. “They’re based on outdated hardware and software constructed at a time when some of the threats were aware of now were not known.”

“I believe, and most of the other experts do too, that the vast majority of machines are honest,” he added. “(The machines) may have a bug here or there, but the majority by far will count ballots correctly. People should not be afraid that their vote won’t count, they should go and cast their ballot.”

Foy, who is new to the Grant County Election Office, is unsure how old the machines are, but knows they are a software update behind.

“(MicroVote) would just update the software (rather than bring in new machines), but our county hasn’t and there’s several counties that still are on the (older) version,” she said. “It’s probably a cost issue.”

The county will likely need to update the system within the next few years, she said.

Spafford offers some advice to voters concerned about voting security.

“Whatever machine they’re using they should carefully review their ballot before they cast it to make sure its right,” he said. “Machines may have a glitch, particularly if someone does a straight party system vote, it may flip some of the votes (to the other party).”

Should this occur, it is unlikely that it is due to nefarious activity, he said, but likely a problem with the machine.

“(Voters) should not cast their vote it if they see (a glitch), as nothing can be done to change (the vote) after being cast,” he said. If this does occur, contact election staff immediately to let them know what happened.

A common reason voters do not trust machines is due to politicians complaining of voter fraud, according to Spafford.

“I would say in most cases (politicians are) making an excuse,” he said. “We need to put more protection into the voting process so those excuses can’t be made going forward. That in itself causes people to lose confidence in the vote.”

Foy expressed full confidence that the voting machines are safe to use and will work today without issue.