By August 28, 2017 Read More →

State, local election officials satisfied with security of voting machines

By RUSTY MARKS

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — State and county election officials say they are satisfied that West Virginia’s voting systems are secure after several voting machines were successfully hacked at a hackers’ convention in Las Vegas.

In July, hackers at the three-day Def Con security conference in Las Vegas successfully hacked into voting machines and electronic voter information systems from several manufacturers, in some cases breaking into voting machines wirelessly.

Among the voting machines successfully hacked was a model built by Election Systems and Software. ES&S provides election software and voting machines for 54 of 55 counties in West Virginia.

But state and local election officials say the perception that online hackers can break into voting machines and alter the outcomes of elections through the internet is simply not true.

“Voting and tabulation machines are never connected to the internet,” said Steven Allen Adams, spokesman for Secretary of State Mac Warner. “Any data transfer necessary to facilitate ePollbooks or unofficial election results between the clerks and the West Virginia secretary of state is conducted with encryption protocols.

“We have 55 counties with county clerks who manage elections at the local level,” Adams said. “Some counties use electronic voting machines, a combination of electronic and paper, and at least one county that still uses solely paper ballots. The diversity of voting methods across our counties makes hacking our elections en mass extremely difficult.”

Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick said it was not widely publicized that the voting machines that were successfully hacked during Def Con were there in the room with the hackers, who had physical access to the machines. To repeat the hack in the real world, hackers would have to walk into a voting precinct surrounded by voters and poll workers and hack into each voting machine one by one.

“It would be an extremely inefficient way to steal an election,” agreed Matt Perry, a Charleston-based computer security expert and hacker.

Perry, one of the organizers of a local hacking event called Hack3rcon, said participants will have their own voting machine to attempt to hack into when the event convenes in November.

Local election officials have been going out of their way to ensure voters that their election systems are secure.

“When you combine voter verified paper trail, public test, pretest, post test before canvass and canvass procedures, it would make it virtually impossible to alter the results (of an election),” Putnam County Clerk Brian Wood wrote in an email to the West Virginia Association of Counties.

“No one person could do it alone — it would take a combination of a highly skilled hacker along with a full team of cooperating poll workers or clerks and county commissioners to do this; sure, if you give an experienced hacker enough time in a perfect environment with no safety measures, any machine could be hacked, but that is why we have the system in place that we do,” Wood wrote

In their own statement to the press following the Def Con hack, officials for ES&S acknowledged third-party hacking attempts of their products can be a valuable tool to improve security.

But ES&S officials said the Def Con hack wasn’t a fair test of the system’s vulnerability.

“The validity of hacking attempts that do not properly recognize the utilization of real world security practices established by law and regulated by every voting jurisdiction in the nation is problematic,” company officials wrote.

“Unrestricted access to a voting unit in an uncontrolled environment is not a legitimate test. Elections are never conducted on a workbench or in a laboratory or at a hackathon,” company officials wrote.

In Kanawha County, McCormick said county officials just spent $3 million on new ES&S voting machines, including 722 individual ExpressVote voting machines and 164 DS200 vote tabulating machines for each county precinct.

The touch-screen voting machines print a voter’s votes onto a strip of white paper, which is individually hand-fed into the DS200 vote tabulating machine, which records the votes and stores the paper ballot in a box locked securely underneath.

The machine stores all the ballots for the precinct on a little data chip that looks like a thumb drive.

At the end of the night, McCormick said, the machines are unlocked and the little data chip is taken back to the voter’s registration office for counting.

The locked boxes of paper ballots are also removed for later counting by hand and vote canvassing.

McCormick considers the new system virtually unhackable.

“You’d have to stand at the machine with a hammer or something,” she said. “That’s why we’ve got five or seven poll workers there.”

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