Donald Trump’s accusations that the November 2016 Presidential election will be rigged has highlighted a glaring hole in the US electoral process: the risk of hacking.
Considering cybercriminal activity is on the rise and the increase in cybercrime-related political scandals such as the DNC hacks, people are starting to realize that the use of technology in elections has risks that accompany the communication benefits.
While rigging an election through voter fraud is nearly impossible, the electronic voting system does create a possibility that voting systems could be hacked. There are a wide variation of systems used by jurisdictions to count votes and they are not all equally secure.
After conducting a survey of 1000 American voters, we here at Secure Thoughts found that the influence of voter fraud and hacking (more specifically, the fear of those events) could heavily influence voter turnout. This means that the very fate of the election itself could well be in the hands of public perception about this issue.
Here’s what you need to know:
Voter Fraud As We Imagine It Is Impossible
The only possible time voter fraud in the form of vote-buying, voter impersonation or the manipulation of absentee ballots is in the smallest of local elections. Extremely close local elections. The fact of the matter is that with the current legal requirements and protections the US has in place, they can detect voter fraud in large quantities quite easily. We also need to consider the fact that performing such a task would take efforts and resources most campaigns and organizations would rather spend elsewhere.
Officials have a close eye on federal elections. The penalties for voter fraud are stiff. New voter restrictions are being passed in many states on a nearly annual basis, and whether or not you agree with whether they disenfranchise voters or not, there have been 31 instances of voter fraud from a sample of 1 billion ballots.
You’re probably more likely to get away with impersonating an electing an elected official than impersonate others to elect that official.
Electronic Cracks in the System
Elections, for the most part, are managed by over 9000 different jurisdictions, and there is no standardized method to vote throughout the country. Some of these jurisdictions still rely solely on paper ballots (likely safe from hackers, however inefficient the method might be) while others will be reliant upon electronic vote recorders. If you want to see how your region handles voting, check out this helpful map.
Not all of these systems are secure. How can we ensure machines aren’t being tampered with? While most systems used to count votes are closed computer systems, what is to stop someone from tampering with those systems at the polls? All it would take is a handful of compromised volunteers or government workers to change the process or the results of the ballot process. Done effectively, no one would be the wiser.
While this is currently the situation, the government is considering categorising the system as critical infrastructure, giving homeland security more money to protect the system. Unfortunately, it has not done so yet. We are also unaware of how the money would be spent or distributed. Would the federal government take charge of protecting voters or would jurisdictions handle cybersecurity individually? The answers to those questions could deeply affect voter confidence.
We’ve already seen elections be swayed by hackers in numerous other countries before. While Latin America probably doesn’t have the same level of cybersecurity that the United States enjoys, more people are willing to throw millions of dollars to see their candidate elected. There’s clear incentive for hackers to find a way into the political machine.
What the Numbers Say: The Importance of Confidence in the Process
On Sunday 7th August, we surveyed 1000 Americans of voting age in order to determine how concerns about cybersecurity could affect their likelihood to vote. We found that over 12 percent of voters would be discouraged from going to the polls because of cybercriminal activity. If voter turnout to the 2016 presidential elections was going to stay consistent with the 2012 elections, nearly 16 million people would be less likely to vote. Other than the actual effects of electronic voter fraud, the hearts and minds of those people are at stake regarding this narrative.
We looked further into the data along key demographic lines. Here are some of our critical findings:
- 18.61 percent of undecided voters would be less likely to vote if they believed the upcoming election could be influenced by cybercrime.
- Young voters would be particularly discouraged, with a 19.57 percent decrease among voters ages 18-25. Among voters ages 26-35 we found a 15.66 percent decrease.
- Older voters, by contrast, are far more likely to be driven to the polls by cybercriminal concerns. Among voters 55 and up we found a 20.65 percent increase.
- Republicans are more likely than Democrats to be more likely to be driven to the polls as a result of concerns over electronic voter fraud (23.97 percent versus 16.57 percent).
- Republicans are also more likely to be discouraged from voting (11.61 percent versus 9.70 percent).
- Male and female voters have relatively similar results, but we found that men (14.83) were more likely to be discouraged than women (9.76 percent).
These statistics show one clear trend. Whether being driven away or towards the polls, people will react to the idea of cybercrime contaminating the democratic process.
The Weight of Those 16 Million Votes
Think for a moment about the weight that 16 million voters have in the US. To find a US election where the margin of victory was greater than that number, we would have to look at the election of 1972. Only a couple of hundred thousand votes in key states could swing the electoral college towards either Clinton or Trump.
In the event hacking does occur, the country will likely be further divided down party lines in the ensuing debates and legal battles. It is no exaggeration to say that a hack that alters the general election will make the DNC hack look forgettable in comparison.
While we can inform the public of the current risks of cybercrime, the true solution is to secure our voting booths beyond reproach. Hackers could literally sway the election one way or another, and if they’re talented we would never find out about it.
Thinking of the Future
Come November, millions of voters will make their thoughts known. Yet the data says that many of these voters might not even bother if electronic voter fraud is to be a concern. Others say they’ll be even more likely to flock to the polls, likely in resistance. How will the government react to this growing threat? Will either of the candidates capitalize on these concerns? We have the information. The results could shape the future of the United States.
Do you have any worries about voter fraud in the upcoming election? Do you think hackers and cybercriminals will influence the upcoming election? Is the fear of hacking making you more or less likely to vote? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below.