Feds look at risks of voting machines, including those coming to Georgia

Hart InterCivic provided a demonstration of its voting machines at the Georgia Capitol on Jan. 15, 2019. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Hart InterCivic provided a demonstration of its voting machines at the Georgia Capitol on Jan. 15, 2019. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is gauging potential vulnerabilities of the type of voting machines that will soon be used in Georgia.

The federal government will work with election officials to better understand the security and auditability of voting systems, said Scott McConnell, a spokesman for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

“This includes helping to identify potential risks and vulnerabilities for deployed systems as well as informing the development of future systems,” McConnell said.

Georgia is preparing to buy a $150 million statewide election system with voting machines called ballot-marking devices. Like the state's current electronic voting machines, voters using the new ballot-marking devices will choose their candidates on touchscreens. Then printers will create paper ballots for voters to review and insert into scanning computers for tabulation.

Federal scrutiny of voting technology comes after a study published last week pointed out weaknesses in ballot-marking devices.

If ballot-marking devices are hacked or tampered with, they could print out falsified ballots, according to the study by professors with expertise in cybersecurity and statistics.

Many voters won't bother to double-check their paper ballots, and those that do might not notice inaccuracies, the study says. When a voter does find a problem, he or she could fill out a replacement ballot, but there’s no way to correct previous voters’ ballots affected by those problems.

“This is the essential security flaw of BMDs: Few voters will notice and promptly report discrepancies between what they saw on the screen and what is on the BMD print-out, and even when they do notice, there's nothing appropriate that can be done,” wrote the study’s authors, Princeton’s Andrew Appel, Georgia Tech’s Richard DeMillo and University of California, Berkeley’s Philip Stark.

In addition, the study warned that ballot-marking devices generally encode votes in bar codes alongside the printed text of voters' choices. Voters wouldn't be able to verify the accuracy of bar codes before they're scanned by tabulation computers.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office didn’t provide comment when asked Tuesday whether ballot-marking devices are secure and accurate.