Hack the vote? Not likely, Rock County officials say

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, October 30, 2016

JANESVILLE—Voting has gone high tech in Rock County, with results sent through a cellphone link from polling places to the courthouse.

Does the digital technology make votes vulnerable to tampering?

It's a question worth asking in an election season in which some have suggested the vote could be hacked.

But it's highly unlikely, said voting officials interviewed last week.

The system has many security features, some of them secret, said Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson, who professes full confidence in the system.

One of those features took place Saturday in Janesville, when the voting tabulators were tested.

State law requires the public tests in every municipality.

To understand the tests, understand the technology.

Rock County replaced its aging vote counters, or tabulators, ahead of the spring elections of 2015. No problems attributed to the machines have been reported.

Paper ballots continue to be used, and they are stored after the election so they can be checked against the official results in the event of a recount or other challenge, Tollefson said.

Simplistically speaking, the tabulators are governed by two data sticks. One stick tells the machine that it's the tabulator for a specific polling precinct, such as, say, Ward 13 in Janesville or the town of Lima.

The second stick holds the data that allows the machine to count the votes.

Tollefson reprograms the sticks for each election.

Theoretically, a hacker could somehow gain access to the sticks and change the coding to make the count lean toward a particular candidate.

Or the stick could be programmed incorrectly.

The tests would catch that. Here's how:

Officials use a stack of marked ballots for the test. They know in advance what the results of the test “election” will be using those ballots.

They run those ballots through the machine and then instruct the machine to produce its report. The machine's results must match the predetermined results.

Empty ballots and miss-marked ballots—such as two votes in one race--are part of the test to make sure the machine catches those.

The machine must reject a miss-marked ballot, and voters are given two more chances to get it right.

“We make sure every candidate on the ballot during test gets votes, and every question on a referendum gets votes, so we know it is recording votes correctly. It's a very, very key part of the system,” said Janesville Clerk Treasurer Dave Godek.

The tests also check the cellphone link by sending the results to the courthouse to make sure the results match, said Derrek Heise, deputy city clerk.

The sticks themselves are subject to security procedures. Two officials are present every time the sticks are handled, and records are kept, much like police chain-of-evidence procedures, Tollefson said.

After Tollefson programs them, the sticks are kept in a vault. They are sent to polling stations in pouches with numbered seals. A broken seal would indicate tampering. After the tests, the sticks are resealed.

Some clerks put the sticks in safes until Election Day, while others lock them inside the tabulators. Again, numbered seals are used, Tollefson said.

Tollefson answered what-if questions about the potential for rigging the vote:

Q: Could someone intercept the data being sent from the polls via cellphone link?

A: The data is encrypted, and the encryption is generated randomly on each machine for each election, Tollefson said.

Q: Could someone break that encryption?

A: “I don't know that anything is unbreakable, but it'd be tough.”

Q: What about hacking in through the internet?

A: The results are received and stored on a computer that is not connected to the internet.

Q: Could someone alter the results after they are received at the courthouse?

A: Each polling station retains its paper copy of the results, and officials check to make sure that the poll results match what Tollefson announces to the public.

Any member of the public who wants to follow along could listen to the required reading of the vote totals at each poll after voting ends.

Q: Could someone preload votes in the machine?

A: The machines are checked before voting begins to make sure they register zero votes.

Every time pollworkers access the machine, they do so in twos, Tollefson said, “so there's a whole check-and-balance system through the ballot process.”

In addition, Tollefson said, the software used in the process is “hardened” so that it can't be reprogrammed, which is required by the federal government.

“There's other layers that I'm not giving you,” Tollefson said.

Those layers involve passwords, coding and “other things” to keep people out of the system, Tollefson said, but when pressed for details, she just smiled.

Election materials are locked in a vault until the week after the election, when a board of canvassers reviews them and certifies their accuracy. Until then, announced results are unofficial.

The canvassers must include one Republican, one Democrat and one neutral person, Tollefson said.

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