This Is How Electronic Voting Tech Works (or, Occasionally, Doesn’t)

The new booth

The Ballot Box

As you might have heard, it’s election day. And while fears of a hacked ballot box have reached fever pitch, we’re going to show you exactly how easy, and how difficult, it is to actually rig an election.

After the 2000 butterfly ballot debacle, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, which worked to replace punch card voting systems with electronic systems. Most voting technology today is one of two types – a touch screen (known as direct recording electronic (DRE) machines); or optical scanner machine used to read paper ballots.

The DRE machine, which uses technology similar to an ATM, is particularly susceptible to hacking Ars Technica reports. The hackers in question would have to be in possession of relatively impressive skills, however.

“The hacks work by tampering with – or more precisely, reflashing – the PCMCIA card, a storage device in the voting machine that’s similar to the tiny hard drive that’s used by many digital cameras,” they write.

“The fraud could be carried out by inserting a maliciously modified card inside a Sequoia AVC Edge machine, although the attackers would likely have to circumvent tamper-evident seals that are designed to flag such abuse.”

Another factor that makes the prospect of high-tech voter fraud unlikely – hacking the number of votes required to shift the election would prove prohibitively difficult.

But that doesn’t mean elections are not susceptible to widespread hacking. Politico profiles a group of “cyber-academics” who have spent the last two decades trying to hack voting machines in the interest of making them more secure. Their findings have resulted in the large-scale adoption of optical scanning machines which leave a paper trail.

“Although the optical scan ballots are counted by the computer in the OpScan machine – which you can’t trust – you can trust the pile of ballots that accumulate in the ballot box, marked by users with their own hands,” Princeton professor Andrew Appel said. “[With the right auditing policies,] you can recount or do a statistical sample of the ballot boxes to make sure there aren’t cheating computers out there.”

Thankfully there are some checks already in place, although the numbers are still lagging. As Wired reports, only five states uses DRE machines exclusively, and just more than half of the U.S. conducts post-election audits, to ensure votes are accurate.

Ballotpedia offers a state-by-state breakdown of voting methods, and Gizmodo has helpfully collated guides to every voting machine in America.

And finally, if you’re faced with a post or email that suggests 16 states will use voting machines controlled by Republican bête noire George Soros, Snopes has your back.