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Too many election systems are vulnerable

As the nation moves closer to the 2018 mid-term elections, the security of voting systems is of paramount importance; but the companies that manufacture widely used voting machines are refusing to cooperate with Congress while insisting their systems are safe from hackers.

Cybersecurity experts disagree, and members of Congress, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, have introduced legislation to require paper ballots for all federal elections and verifiable audits of election results nationwide.

Wyden is in an ideal position to call for those measures, because Oregon’s vote-by-mail system is an example of how elections can be conducted without the risk of electronic hackers disrupting the results. Voters mark paper ballots, which are scanned by machines in each county elections department. The paper ballots are retained in case recounts are needed and provide the paper trail necessary to audit the results.

In many states, however, elections are conducted using electronic voting machines that keep only a digital record of voters’ choices, producing no paper backup at all.

In testimony before the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday, Wyden said voting machine manufacturer Elections Systems & Software refused for months to answer his questions about their security measures.

In February, the New York Times reported that ES&S had shipped voting machines to state elections officials with modems and remote monitoring software installed. The company’s position, and that of other manufacturers, is that its systems are secure because the machines are not connected to the internet. But cybersecurity experts say that is misleading and no guarantee the systems are secure.

ES&S and Dominion, two of the three major voting-machine companies, declined to send representatives to Wednesday’s committee hearing, though they were invited. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she wanted more answers from the companies and would send them written questions.

U.S. national security officials agree that Russian hackers attempted to infiltrate voting systems in the 2016 presidential election. Whether they succeeded in changing any votes is immaterial at this point; what is important is strengthening voting systems to prevent a recurrence.

Legislation introduced last month by Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and four Senate colleagues would require states to use paper ballots and to audit every federal election using statistically rigorous “risk-limiting audits” that duplicate a full recount at less expense. The goal is to assure Americans that their votes are secure and their elections free from interference.

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