Expert: 4 ways Americans can keep their vote secure and accurate
J. Alex Halderman, one of the nation’s foremost election security experts and a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, has spent much of the last two years debunking false claims of fraud that followed the 2020 election.
While he acknowledges that demonstrating the integrity of the electoral process is important work, he notes that every minute election security experts spend on the new threat of unfounded fraud claims is a minute they can’t spend on other risks to election security.
“There’s no way to sugar coat it, progress really has been stalled since 2020 in terms of improvements to election security,” Halderman said. “No one has yet, even with all of this time and all of this interest, produced any credible evidence that the 2020 election was affected by any kind of hacking in any state. On the other hand, there are still security issues with election systems that need more work to address.”
Read Halderman’s study debunking claims of fraud in Antrim, Michigan’s 2020 election results
Those issues include poorly designed electronic voting systems and election procedures. But he emphasizes that voters can be part of the solution, both through simple actions at the poll booth and by calling on lawmakers to implement better practices in future elections. He recommends that voters take the following steps as they head to the polls this November.
1. Avoid voting methods that don’t have a paper trail
It’s well-known that electronic voting machines are potentially vulnerable to hacking—even if they’re not connected to the internet. And electronic voting machines that don’t provide paper verification offer no way to verify that your vote has been recorded correctly. There’s also no way to recount votes in the event of an error or malfunction. The good news is, states have made considerable progress in moving away from paperless voting.
“The number of states with paperless voting has gone down from 11% in 2020 to 7% in 2022,” Halderman said. “If you’re one of those voters, you might consider voting by mail. That will create a paper record of your vote that can be recounted.”
Watch a New York Times video on Halderman’s voting machine research
In-person voting is still paperless in parts of Indiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas, and in all of Louisiana.
2. If you use a ballot marking device at the polls, review your printout to make sure it’s correct.
Ballot-marking devices are machines—usually touch screens—where voters fill out their ballot electronically and then get a printout of their vote that’s scanned by a computer.
They are very helpful for people who are unable to complete a hand-marked ballot. But a growing number of jurisdictions have begun using ballot marking devices for every voter. In 2022, more than 23% of voters live in jurisdictions where in-person voters will be required to use an electronic device to mark a paper ballot. That’s up from 19% in 2020 and less than 1% in 2016.
“The concern with every voter using ballot-marking devices is that an attacker might compromise them and program them to produce paper ballots that don’t reflect the voters’ choices,” Halderman said. “A study my students and I published in 2020 suggests that the vast majority of voters don’t review their printouts closely enough to make sure they’re correct.”
Read Halderman’s study on ballot marking devices
If you vote using a ballot marking device, scrutinize the printout and tell a poll worker if any selection isn’t right.
All voters in Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, California’s Los Angeles County and Philadelphia, as well as many other counties across the country, will vote using ballot-marking devices.
3. Don’t vote online
There’s increasing pressure on election officials to provide easier means of remote voting. And some states have responded by allowing increasingly large fractions of the public to cast votes online.
But the risks of online voting are extremely high. It’s impossible to guarantee the security of the voter’s own device, which could have already been compromised by attackers. Server-side systems can also be hacked in various ways to change the vote before it’s counted. And the technology usually doesn’t provide any way for the voter or election officials to verify that the vote the voter intended is actually what gets counted.
Read Halderman’s study on online voting security issues (PDF)
“Voters should absolutely avoid voting online if any alternative is available,” Halderman said. “It’s much safer to vote by mail than to cast your vote over the internet under almost any circumstances.”
4. Encourage your state to do a risk-limiting audit in future elections
The most efficient method of confirming that election results are correct is something called a risk-limiting audit. This is a transparent and observable public process that confirms the reported outcome by having people inspect randomly selected paper ballots.
Learn more about risk-limiting audits from the National Conference of State Legislatures
“Risk-limiting audits are a way to determine with high confidence that the results of an election are correct, and it takes much less time and effort than a complete recount,” Halderman said. “This is something that every state should do after every significant election and something that voters should demand from their election officials.”
Just three states so far require risk-limiting audits by statute: Colorado, Rhode Island and Virginia. In another dozen states, such audits are optional or are currently being piloted under statutory or administrative programs: California, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.