Tension over the 2016 U.S. presidential elections is running high. Both front-runners have stoked fears of disaster: a compromised process or a rigged result on Election Day. In a race with plenty of legitimate concerns—mostly over truth, justice, and the American way—should voters revolt?
Nominees Weigh In
This summer, federal officials suspected Russian hackers of breaking in to the Democratic National Committee’s email system. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton told voters she was “really concerned” that Russia might meddle in U.S. elections.
Republican nominee Donald Trump didn’t seem anxious over Russia. Instead, he worried about America’s political system. Trump warned voters, “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged.”
Reports of outdated, hackable voting machines haven’t eased concerns.
Security experts have warned about possible Election Day hacking of computer systems. They’re usually talking specifically about touchscreen voting machines. These are known as direct-recording electronic (DRE) devices.
No More Backups
DRE machines became popular after a bona fide voting disaster in 2000: the much-debated presidential election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. Election volunteers inspected ballots by hand. They had to decide whether partly punched pieces of paper were real votes.
Congress responded to that election fiasco with the “Help America Vote Act.” The bill offered $3 billion in federal funds. States would use the money to computerize voting. No more relying on paper, officials thought.
DRE machines became common nationwide. The computer touchpad system removed some problems connected with paper ballots. But it also removed important backups: old-fashioned paper trails.
Suppose a machine crashed? Suppose someone claimed tampering? The only way to recount votes would be to check electronic records . . . on the very devices being questioned. Oops.
There are no proven cases of purposefully rigged DRE machines. But there have been glitches. In one race, 18,000 Florida voters made no selection at all. That seemed suspect. Some election observers believed the machines malfunctioned. But there was no paper backup, so it was impossible to check the votes against another source.
In another race, machines showed a popular incumbent losing in an Iowa race. This time the voting devices had paper backup. A recount by hand showed the incumbent won easily. A computer-programming mistake had tipped the count toward the challenger.
Today, many states use both electronic voting and paper backups.
But about 25–30% of voters still use a totally paperless voting system. Those computer-only systems remain the most open to tampering or breaking down. Pennsylvania is a “swing” state that could help decide the presidential election. Some counties there are paperless.
However, most DRE machines aren’t connected to the internet. That means a hacker couldn’t break into the system from a distance. Even spreading a virus via computer memory cards requires an in-person appearance. Hacker-criminals would need to be present at many devices across many precincts in several states. That’s possible. But it’s not probable. Still, the FBI urged election officials across the United States to watch for unlawful activity in their systems.
A former Federal Election Commission official believes voter identity fraud could be a bigger threat than computer concerns. People voting who shouldn’t be could skew results.
Election security is important. But it’s doubtful hackers will steal an American election. The biggest danger may be voters’ mistrust of the system. Even a few problems could cause widespread worry that the election results aren’t fair. Voting troubles could throw post-election days into chaos.
The God of heaven does not await election returns to know the future. Whatever the outcome on November 8, Jesus encourages believers to “Take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)