Leakage of voting machine files undermines fair and free elections

Experienced lawyers talk about the folly of allowing “fishing expeditions” — and give a struggling opposition mounds of information to sift through for something to back their arguments.

But now, according to The Washington Post, a conglomeration of election deniers, conspiracy buffs and right-wing commentators have landed a big fish by getting their hands on sensitive electoral system files.

At this point, it’s not clear that hackers could use this information to change the outcome of future elections. But some opponents of free and fair elections will no doubt search these files for something they can mistake for electoral fraud. In this way, they can advance their efforts to undermine future elections by undermining trust in the electoral process.

The data files were obtained from voting systems in Coffee County, Georgia and Antrim County, Michigan. Former President Donald Trump’s attorney Sidney Powell reportedly helped coordinate the effort in January 2021. A Georgia computer forensics firm, the Post reported, dumped the files on a server from which they were downloaded dozens of times. Furthermore, once they arrived in the cybersphere, they may have been copied many times – potentially making the type of machines used in Georgia and Michigan more vulnerable everywhere.

According to the Post, the files have already fallen into the hands of a “Texas meteorologist who appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show; a podcaster who suggested executing political enemies; a former pro surfer who promoted debunked theories that the 2020 election was rigged; and a self-proclaimed former ‘seduction and pickup coach’ who claims he was also a hacker.”

Leaked files from Antrim County voting machines were also distributed at a cyber symposium in South Dakota last August, despite being under a protective order from a Michigan court, said Douglas W. Jones, associate professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Iowa. told us. For example, data was stolen from voting machines in Mesa County, Colorado, he said.

“Apart from demonstrating the basic lawlessness of the individuals involved, these three releases of voting machine code and system images pose a threat,” Jones wrote via email. “…These leaks are worse than simple leaks of code because the leaked system images contain not only code but also cryptographic keys.”

Using these files to change election results won’t necessarily be easy, the electoral authorities told us. Not only does the United States have a decentralized electoral system with around 8,000 electoral courts, these jurisdictions themselves can be decentralized down to the county level. Although voting machines are computers and therefore vulnerable to hacking, they are secured during transport or storage. A hacker cannot get on the Internet and gain access to them. But in Mesa County’s case, the county clerk allowed an unauthorized person access to a secure facility housing the county’s voting equipment software, thereby compromising the equipment.

Most of the nation has switched to ballots that are hand-marked by voters or voting machines that print out replacement paper ballots. These paper ballots can be counted by hand if there is reason to doubt the software tabulation that will provide an accurate result when recounted.

In Cook County, electoral officials routinely conduct post-election audits that compare a statistical sample of paper ballots with the results tabulated by voting machines to ensure the results match. But a third of states don’t conduct routine testing, and among those that do, some do them better than others. All electoral jurisdictions should conduct effective reviews after each election.

Despite these guard rails, it is beyond troubling that keys to voting software have been leaked to untrained individuals who may not have the best of motives. Who knows what claims they will make to undermine elections they don’t win now that they have this information? Who knows how resonant these claims will be with voters? Who knows if hackers will find vulnerabilities in voting machines that allow them to do something in swing states?

An ABC/Ipsos poll in January found that only 20% of respondents were “very confident” in the integrity of the US electoral system. In an NBC News poll released Aug. 21, respondents named “threats to democracy” as the #1 problem facing America.

Voters can do their part by rejecting candidates who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. In battleground states, about two-thirds of GOP candidates in November’s election for state and federal offices with voting powers are draft evaders.

America’s electoral system has been under constant attack for years from Trump and his allies trying to sow doubt for their own ends. Leaking sensitive files from voting machines jeopardizes public acceptance of future voting results.

It’s democracy that could be left hanging. America must prevent this.

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