Video: Hackers show CBS why you should worry about the upcoming election

Second look at butterfly ballotsWell, maybe not those, but perhaps the panicky shift toward electronic voting deserves a second look by some jurisdictions. CBS’ This Morning offered a cautionary — if somewhat alarmist — look at the vulnerabilities of some voting systems to hackers. It comes just in time to make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy about November’s election, if too late to do anything about it:

Roughly 70 percent of states in the U.S. use some form of electronic voting. Hackers told CBS News that problems with electronic voting machines have been around for years. The machines and the software are old and antiquated. But now with millions heading to the polls in three months, security experts are sounding the alarm, reports CBS News correspondent Mireya Villarreal. …

The voter doesn’t even need to leave the booth to hack the machine.

“For $15 and in-depth knowledge of the card, you could hack the vote,” Varner said.

Symantec Security Response director Kevin Haley said elections can also be hacked by breaking into the machines after the votes are collected.

“The results go from that machine into a piece of electronics that takes it to the central counting place,” Haley said. “That data is not encrypted and that’s vulnerable for manipulation.”

“There’s a huge potential” for mischief, Haley says, but just how likely is widespread fraud? Not likely at all, actually, because election systems vary widely among the 9,000 voting districts in the US. There is no national voting system, which means that a national hack is impossible. There aren’t consistent systems within states either. Unless an election was very close to the point where a few precincts could swing an election, hackers would prove more an annoyance than a national-security threat — although that scenario did play out in the 2000 presidential election. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

While secretaries of state want more funding to improve voting-system security, CBS’ report explains later in the segment, they don’t see an organized hack of an election as a big danger:

Merrill said there are checks in place to prevent fraud. “Our voting systems are heavily regulated. They’re tested both before and after. There are paper trails everywhere…by in large, I would say the American election system works very well,” Merrill said.

CBS News learned that only 60 percent of states routinely conduct audits post-election by checking paper trails. But not all states even have paper records, like in some parts of swing states Virginia and Pennsylvania, which experts say could be devastating.

That brings us back to the 2000 election. After the recount made issues like hanging chads and “pregnant chads” into a national crisis, Congress and activists hit the panic button on supposedly antiquated voting systems such as the punch-card operation in Florida. Rather than choose a better and proven system for paper ballots — like the optical-scan ballots used in Minnesota — lawmakers at the national and state level demanded funding for electronic-voting systems that do not retain paper records for later recounts. Ever since, those jurisdictions which have adopted touch-screen voting have been vulnerable not just to hacks but also system failures, incompetence, and the lack of paper ballots for full recounts.

Optical-scan ballots aren’t perfect, but they have fewer issues than either punch-card voting or electronic systems without paper ballots. Voters can screw up a ballot with stray pen marks, but at least in Minnesota a voter can replace a spoiled ballot with a fresh blank if they ask for one before submitting it. The machine does a check of the ballot to make sure it can be read before the voter leaves the polling station.They can be run through the machines repeatedly without losing their integrity, while punch cards can only be run a few times before the risk of spoiling the card.  The count of ballots goes very quickly, but the paper ballots are retained for hand recounting for audits and challenges later. Even if the machines got hacked, the paper ballots would still exist and could be counted separately if needed.

Sometimes, the brightest and shiniest tool isn’t the best for the job.