I-Team: Election leaders say ballots are safe, worry about minds of voters being 'hacked'

Casting a ballot on Election Day comes with a sense of purpose and pride, and usually an expectation that the choice will be counted accurately and securely. In Michigan, election leaders are taking extra steps to ensure the backbone of democracy — the vote — is protected, but it's what state leaders can’t control that raises red flags.

It seems as if the political cycle has turned election season into a year-round event, and the 2020 presidential election seemingly started right after the inauguration in 2016. All eyes will be on Michigan as candidates vie for the seat in the White House next year. Many of those candidates have already made several stops in the state.

"Certainly, there’s all kinds of efforts to influence election outcomes. That could be anything between running a Facebook advertising ad campaign to putting up a website, to trying to just influence political decision making." — Matt Grossmann, police science professor

The hyper-focus on politics is attracting attention from people and groups looking to swing a voters view when it comes time to making a final decision. Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said it’s not really new. Special-interest groups have always tried to influence a voter’s thought with information about a candidate, or against another.

"Certainly, there’s all kinds of efforts to influence election outcomes,” Grossmann said. “That could be anything between running a Facebook advertising ad campaign to putting up a website, to trying to just influence political decision making.

“We have a lot of complaints about money in politics but people who see more advertising from the candidates, for example, know more about their issue positions." Grossman said. "They’re better able to distinguish the candidate that’s closer to them on an ideological spectrum. They know more about the biographies of the candidates. So, there is a lot of that political spending that is helpful in informing people about their choices.”

Grossmann said he’s already seen groups targeting voters in Michigan with information on his personal Facebook feed. He said he came across an ad, which was sponsored, from a company that portrays itself as a local newspaper writing stories with an obvious political slant.

“There’s a lot of effort to create alternative news sources. There are efforts to try to make election communications look less like they’re communications from candidates or from parties; and I think you’ll see that continue,” Grossmann said. “But of course, when we get to things that are misleading or come from a particular perspective that aren’t labeled as such, then we start to get into some concern about misinformation and are people getting led in one direction without realizing that they are.”

Protecting your ballot

Michigan is a state that uses paper ballots to vote. It might sound counter-intuitive in a world where almost everything can be done at the end of fingertips and usually online; but election leaders in the state say paper ballots is a sure way to root out questions of miscalculations.

“Nothing is totally secure, but in Michigan, we have some of the most safe and secure elections in the nation. One of the strongest protections we have is paper,” Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said. “We have all of the paper trail necessary to audit an election, to do a recount of an election.”

Byrum oversees elections in her area, but she also sits on the state’s new elections security commission. Created by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the commission is a compilation of several different local, state and national election security leaders. Benson named David Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research, and J. Alex Halderman, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, as co-chairs of the commission. Also appointed to the commission:

  • Tripp Adams, Michigan chapter lead for the Truman National Security Project, an advocacy organization for national security solutions; and a lawyer.
  • Tina Barton, Rochester Hills city clerk, master municipal clerk, certified Michigan municipal clerk and host to Michigan’s first pilot risk-limiting audit.
  • Barb Byrum, Ingham County clerk, certified elections registration administrator, former member of the Election Center’s Security Task Force and former Michigan state representative.
  • Rich DeMillo, Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren professor of computer science at Georgia Tech and former dean of the College of Computing and director of the Information Research Center, previous international election observer and board member for nonprofit election security organizations.
  • Chris DeRusha, chief security officer for the state of Michigan and formerly with Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  • Joshua M. Franklin, president and co-founder of OutStack Technologies and formerly led security aspects of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s voting project.
  • Cathy M. Garrett, Wayne County clerk.
  • Liz Howard, election security counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and former deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections.
  • Rachel Huddleston, publications/communications associate for Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service Inc. in Lansing.
  • Matthew V. Masterson (non-voting liaison), senior cybersecurity advisor, Office of Cybersecurity and Communications, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  • Walter R. Mebane Jr., professor of political science and statistics at the University of Michigan.
  • Jennifer Morrell, former election official in Utah and Colorado, nationally recognized expert in election audits and consultant with Democracy Fund on Election Validation Project.
  • Tim Snow, Kalamazoo County clerk and register of deeds and former president of Michigan Association of County Clerks.
  • Maurice Turner, senior technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology with special focus on the Election Security and Privacy Project.
  • Dan Wallach, professor of computer science and Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, former director of the National Science Foundation’s ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections) program.
  • Wayne Williams, former Colorado secretary of state and former El Paso county clerk and recorder.

Benson echoed Byrum’s steadfast belief in paper ballots and said more states across the country are moving back to paper ballots as a safeguard to potential issues on Election Day.

“When there is a recount needed, you can easily verify and look at the ballots that were cast by a voter and ensure the machine counting the ballot has accurately counted them,” Benson said.

The state is piloting different risk-limited audits for elections. Benson said the post-election audits have been the most reliable way of ensuring that machines are counting the ballots that are cast in them.

Clerks are responsible for programming the different voting tabulating machines, Byrum said, which she said means the risk for hacking is reduced to nearly zero since it is not housed in one central location.

Each polling location has workers and volunteers with eyes on the process from the moment the doors open, until the last ballot is processed.

“I believe that Michigan stacks up quite well when it comes to election security and integrity,” Byrum said. “We have layers of protection when it comes to making sure our results are accurate.”

While Byrum said she’s confident the ballots and actual voting procedure is safe, she said there is one thing she worries about when it comes to the integrity of the election process.

“Although I believe in Michigan our elections have not been hacked, I do have concerns that our minds might have been,” Byrum said.

Social media’s influence

As Grossmann said, social media and politics have been intertwined for years and groups are using the platform to target a certain base with a specific message. Byrum and Benson said people should tread lightly in the world of social media and politics.

“One of the biggest challenges to election security is not just the potential for hacking our elections but also hacking the minds of voters themselves, which is as much of a threat to the security of our elections as anything,” Benson said. “We’re encouraging voters and citizens to be proactive not reactive when they hear information about elections or campaigns.”

Scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, it’s not hard to find a post with some sort of political view, ideological slant or sometimes, flat-out misinformation. Byrum advised people to think beyond their bubble of comfortable information and expand views.

“It is dangerous for us to segregate ourselves and I think that’s why it’s important to have conversations with people and not rely on social media as the way to have conversations with people. I think that’s why it’s important where we trust specific news sources, and we continue to love and appreciate people from all walks of life,” Byrum said. “I do believe that our minds are at risk.”

What to do? Diversity. Byrum emphasized the importance of including people with different viewpoints in daily life and conversations. Plus, Grossmann said, it’s important to be a little skeptical what is online or on TV.

“In a lot of ways, it does come down to the voter being able to discern different kinds of information and being able to make decisions accordingly,” Grossmann said. “For the most part, it’s free rein for candidates and other people to try to influence people’s decision making in elections and that leaves a lot of work up to the voters to differentiate between all of the competing claims.”

What’s next for 2020?

The presidential election is now less than a year away. Voting is different in Michigan now than it was even for the 2018 midterms. People can vote absentee without a reason for the first time and voter registration can be done any time, including on Election Day. Ssame-day voter registration can only be done at a clerk’s office, though, not a polling location.

Some critics have raised concerns about issues with same-day voter registration and worry about potential fraud. Byrum said because same-day registration can only take place at a clerk’s office, staff will be able to accurately check the registered voter file to thwart any fraud.

No-reason absentee voting could cause wrinkles in the voting process, Byrum warned. She said no-reason absentee voting is a good thing. She said changes should be made to the process in which election workers can process the influx if ballots.

“It takes an enormous amount of time to open up those envelopes, those absentee mail-in ballots, open them up, check signatures, flatten them out, feed them through the tabulators. It takes a long time. Our machines aren’t nearly as fast as one would believe, especially if it’s a two-page ballot,” Byrum said. “I think some consideration needs to be made for early feeding of the ballots the day before the election because what I see coming, is I see unofficial election night results not being able to be posted on election night because all the absentee ballots are still being processed.”

No legislative action has been announced to make changes to address the issues Byrum raised, but she said she is hoping legislators tune changes soon because not making changes could mean results come in later.

“I think we need to have a conversation. I think we should have it before 2020 because 2020 is going to be an extraordinary election year,” Byrum said.

The concern for outside election interference looms. Benson said Michigan’s machines are locked up and workers are trained to prevent any wrongdoing. Like Byrum said, “nothing is unhackable,” which means the state is on alert.

“Here in Michigan, we’ve got more eyes on this process than ever before,” Benson said.

Ensuring the vote is counted is critical, Benson said. She’s also fighting for people to trust the system and not let outside information, especially coming from sources with malicious intentions, impact the backbone of democracy.

“We are working to protect the citizens’ new rights that are in the Constitution by increasing the security of our elections and hopefully thereby also increasing their confidence as well,” Benson said. “If voters don’t have confidence that when they go to cast their ballot that the system is going to work and is going to protect their voice and count their vote, then everything we are fighting for falls to the wayside.”

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