Are there voting-fraud risks? Sure, but the chances of widespread rigging are low

Gene Riley, of Brattleboro, Vt., fills out his ballot at the town clerk office in the municipal building during early voting on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, in Brattleboro.
Gene Riley, of Brattleboro, Vt., fills out his ballot at the town clerk office in the municipal building during early voting on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, in Brattleboro. AP

Despite fears of Election Day mayhem, the 2016 presidential race is likely to be the most secure in years, according to experts.

That’s because the way America casts and counts its vote is increasingly driven by newer and more reliable technology, they say.

“I don’t think we’d be here if we did believe it was rigged,” Amy Muffo, a software development manager from Raleigh, North Carolina, said while waiting in line Thursday to vote early at the Optimist Community Center in suburban Raleigh.

So why are others worried? Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has stoked concern with doomsday predictions of election chaos that experts warn are exaggerated.

Although the Nov. 8 election is national, it is operated at the state and local level, under differing rules in all 50 states. Forty-one states are generally viewed by experts as relatively risk-free, because they deploy optical-scan technology that scans paper ballots or they have printouts of electronic ballots cast as a backup.

It’s the remaining nine states that have generated concern and left room for the perception of manipulation. The vulnerabilities – and how serious they are – differ depending on the state and even the precinct.

Recent high-profile email hacks and lingering problems with voting technology in some parts of the country also fuel fears that a close election between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton could invite tampering.

In North Carolina, where presidential, Senate and governor’s races are all too close to call, voters waited 45 minutes in line Thursday to cast early ballots, even from their cars. Some expressed uneasiness about election security.

“I have less confidence,” said Michele Woodhouse, a medical saleswoman who’s a Republican. “Look at the time between early voting and Election Day. You have more time. There’s more room for things to go wrong.”

Others had no such qualms.

“I just don’t think it’s rigged,” said Jay Thompson, a N.C. Democrat and one of 20 early voters with whom McClatchy spoke.

Handing out voting pamphlets from a chair, Robert Worthington, a Republican, declared himself “confident there will be no fraud.”

Optimism about the integrity of this election is supported by reality, experts said.

“It’s gotten gradually better and it’s still improving,” said David Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor who started VerifiedVoting.Org in 2003 because of his own concerns about election technology.

“First and foremost, our elections are secure,” Thomas Hicks, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said at a recent congressional hearing. “Voters should have confidence that their voices will be counted accurately when they cast them.

“Second, there may be headlines related to cyberattacks and data breaches, but these headlines are not representative of our voting machines.”

There are valid concerns, however.

“There are vulnerabilities at all levels because of election technology and the procedures used in some states,” Dill said. “If someone hired me to change the results of the election and the election was reasonably close, I could come up with many schemes to change the results.”

High-profile computer hacks into two state voter-registration systems, the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chief John Podesta’s private emails have all combined to heighten concerns about election security and whether Russia might be interfering, as the FBI has said.

As disruptive as those events were, they represent a very different scale than a breach that could determine, or least cause doubts about, the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

That may not be necessary if it is a close election.

Princeton University professor Andrew Appel, on whether access to voting machines would be needed to manipulate national election results

The voting technology in the nine states that use variations of the so-called touch screen computers is open to manipulation, experts said. Five states are entirely paperless. They are Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and New Jersey, said Pamela Smith, the president of VerifiedVoting.org. Four other states are partially paperless, and viewed by experts as vulnerable. They are Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Florida, which halted the presidential election in 2000 with its chad-based ballots, has since gotten rid of the chads and made several other changes to improve its voting procedures across the state. VerifiedVoting.org considers Florida’s use of touch screens for voters with disabilities a concern, given the large number of elderly citizens in the state.

Princeton University computer-science professor Andrew W. Appel has demonstrated in New Jersey court how to write a program that could steal election results on the paperless voting machines. He recently testified to Congress about potential election risks.

While difficult for a foreign state, such as Russia, to systematically access thousands of voting machines, it’s not impossible in certain districts of some key swing states.

“It’s definitely possible to do, and it’s been demonstrated,” Appel, the chairman of Princeton’s computer science department, said in an interview.

The catch, however, is that in most cases a hacker would need physical access to a voting machine for at least seven minutes for installation. That’s why a local corrupt official is more likely to be a problem in some precincts than a large-scale computer hack.

“If you go back 80 years, or 120 years, there was lots of election fraud . . . committed by the insiders who count the votes,” Appel said.

Pennsylvania is the state experts said they were watching. It is a political toss-up state, and Appel and others said it lacked an auditing process.

State officials there say they’ve addressed the problems.

We have a full fleet of security measures.

Wanda Murren, spokeswoman, Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office, on preparedness for potential election manipulation

“These machines have worked just fine for years,” Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania secretary of state’s office, told McClatchy, adding that her state’s “voting systems are never, ever connected to the internet or any network. They cannot be cyber hacked.”

These voting systems, she said, include redundant memory, meaning that the votes cast are stored elsewhere. And there’s an audit trail, if needed.

In Centre County, home to the flagship campus of Penn State University, elections director Joyce E. McKinley said hers was one of the few areas of the state that had optical-scan paper ballots.

“We are secure. Nothing is connected to any other system, no internet connection,” she said.

Federal election monitors will be gathering information to look for any instances of voter intimidation and fraud, says U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She also encourages all Americans to vote in the "free and fair election."

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid