Democracy 101: How Secure Are Our Election Systems?

Democracy 101: How Secure Are Our Election Systems?

5:00am Oct 24, 2018

This is part of our election-year civics series, Democracy 101Click here to find more of our stories about important issues in North Carolina politics.

Ever since the news broke that foreign agents tried to meddle in the 2016 election, voters and officials alike have wondered how secure our ballots really are.

So, what are the potential threats to North Carolina’s elections, and what’s being done to protect them?

Let’s start with who runs the show: the State Board of Elections, and all 100 county boards, are in charge of not only putting on our elections, but also keeping the integrity of the vote intact.

That’s a big job, and not necessarily easy. There are plenty of very real threats out there aimed at disrupting our elections. On the electronic front, there are things like phishing scams that try to plant devious software in election officials’ computers.

If that happened, hackers could gain access to private information. And according to Patrick Gannon, the spokesperson for the State Board of Elections, there are plenty of people who want it.

“Any kind of interference from other countries is always a potential threat. We saw it in 2016, and we see it now with people trying to infiltrate various systems, not only in our state, but in other states,” he says. “We believe we’re well-protected against those threats.”

There’s a reason for that confidence.

For starters, much of the state will be using paper ballots. And voting machines and tabulators are theoretically harder to hack now because they’re not legally allowed to be connected to the internet during the election.

But there’s something else: even though each state decides how it conducts its elections, when it comes to threat identification, the state has federal backup.

“The Department of Homeland Security regularly scans – and has, even prior to the 2016 elections – our election systems for any vulnerabilities,” he says. “If they find any, we’re notified, and we can try to fix it.”

Earlier this year, DHS even held a weeklong event to try to find vulnerabilities in the state’s election processes, and Gannon says North Carolina came out pretty well.

But the state has another powerful tool to help keep the vote honest. A detailed audit, which happens after Election Day, can figure out if someone voted twice, for example.

“The post-election audits can also detect errors in voting machines or tabulators; maybe a machine error as opposed to human error,” Gannon says. “They can also detect ballot coding issues, like if something’s wrong with the ballot. Those are all things that a post-election audit can detect.”

So, if the systems all work property, it should be hard to tamper with results before November 6th. And after that day, the audits are likely to catch irregularities.

But what about Election Day itself? For one thing, the state and counties work to assess physical security at polling places, in case a fight breaks out, for example. And then there’s the issue of in-person voter fraud.

Some politicians have made claims that voter fraud is rampant, or at least, it could be. In reality, that’s exceedingly rare in the United States, and similarly rare in North Carolina.

“We found, out of 4.3 million ballots cast in the 2016 election, roughly 500 or so ineligible ballots cast,” Gannon says. “And that’s a very, very small percentage, about one in 10,000 voters were ineligible when they cast ballots.”

Most of those ineligible voters were convicted felons, who are not allowed to cast ballots, and may or may not have been aware of that at the time.

All of this leads us to two conclusions. Number one: in the internet era, anything can happen. You just can’t be 100 percent certain that your equipment is bulletproof.

But here’s the second point: given all the safeguards in place, it’s unlikely that widespread tampering or voter fraud will occur this year in North Carolina. So breathe a little bit easier when you go to the polls.

With all of that said, we’ll leave the final word to Patrick Gannon:

“Vote! Certainly vote. Go out and do your civic duty.”

And when you go, you can do so knowing that your voice will be heard.

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