How Secure Are Elections in Massachusetts?

As even more evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election emerges, policymakers and citizens across the country are turning their attention to election security in preparation for this year’s midterm elections.

As even more evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election emerges, policymakers and citizens across the country are turning their attention to election security in preparation for this year’s midterm elections. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers revealed that the hackers targeted state and local election infrastructure, exposing worrying vulnerabilities in American election systems. Government officials have warned that Russia will try to influence the 2018 elections as well; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there is “a great deal more work to do” in order to combat Russia’s continued efforts to undermine the democratic process.

According to Mueller’s indictment, Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election went even further than spreading misinformation. Russian hackers looked for vulnerabilities in the websites of U.S. state boards of elections and secretaries of state, successfully accessing the website of an unidentified state board of election office. They then stole personal information related to approximately 500,000 voters.

These new revelations come on top of previous concerns about the vulnerability of electronic voting machines. Experts have warned for a long time that electronic voting machines are not adequately secured against hacking, yet five states — New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana — nonetheless use only electronic machines without a paper record for later verification. Very few states conduct thorough post-elections reviews of voting machines in search for evidence of tampering, so it is possible that an election could be manipulated without the crime ever being discovered.

Here in Massachusetts, electoral processes are relatively safe. Fortunately, Massachusetts’ voter rolls were not hacked during the 2016 election, and the Commonwealth is less vulnerable than other states because it uses only paper ballots instead of electronic voting machines. Massachusetts’ voting systems are also more secure because they are not connected to the internet, meaning that any attempts at election interference would need to involve physical tampering and could not occur remotely. In addition to these positives, however, the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan public policy research institute, identified several problems with Massachusetts’ election security. According to their report, Massachusetts needs more rigorous post-election auditing, since auditing is currently required only after presidential elections and uses just a small, fixed percentage of the vote. Some also have concerns about the fact that Massachusetts has recently begun experimenting with e-poll books, which are tablets that store voter information while checking in voters during town meetings. Since some of these tablets can connect to the internet, they could theoretically be tampered with. Fortunately, state election officials are mindful of this vulnerability and are strategizing about the safest and most effective way to put this technology to use in the midterms.

The Commonwealth is currently taking steps to safeguard the coming 2018 and 2020 elections. For example, Massachusetts recently received a $7.9 million federal grant for election security. The funds will go towards updating voting systems and voter registration equipment, as well as further examining the cybersecurity of Massachusetts’ elections. Unfortunately, none of the money has been designated for improving election auditing. Still, Massachusetts is certainly “picking up the pace” in terms of election security, according to Secretary of State William Galvin.

Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot says that there is “room for improvement” in Massachusetts’ election security practices, but she adds that Massachusetts’ elections are, overall, much safer than many other states. Common Cause itself has promoted several efforts to protect elections and prevent voter fraud. Most recently, we advocated for Massachusetts to join the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) as part of the Automatic Voter Registration bill. ERIC would compare Massachusetts voter registration information to other state and national databases — including DMV records, Social Security Administration records, and the Postal Service’s national change of address registry — and confirm that all registered voters are listed accurately. Keeping voter rolls up-to-date is vital for protecting against election fraud, and ERIC ensures that any changes or mistakes in registration information are caught before the integrity of our elections is jeopardized. We deserve to know that our voter rolls are correct and safe from interference — and that is exactly what ERIC helps us accomplish. Common Cause Massachusetts has also been the state’s leading advocate for post-election audits and will be filing legislation to expand our current limited audit law.

American intelligence agencies believe that Russia has a “longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” so it is crucial that our electoral infrastructure remains well-protected going forward. Transparent, accurate, and secure elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and we cannot allow them to be compromised.