Campaigns & Elections

Are New York’s elections safe from cyberattack?

Boards of election may be a target for bad actors, but it’s not so easy to hack the vote.

New Yorkers voting at  Park Slope Armory YMCA on October 27th.

New Yorkers voting at Park Slope Armory YMCA on October 27th. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Threats of election interference via cyberattacks are alive and well in 2020 – not just from Russia, but from Iran and China too.

Cyberattacks on election infrastructure might include ransomware attacks – when a hacker gains access to a computer network and locks the user out until a ransom is paid – or by more straightforward denial-of-service attacks, which can shut down access to those kinds of systems. “It could do things like bring down election night results websites, it could do things that would shut down access to voter list systems,” David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said of a theoretical cyberattack. “All I can tell you is that election officials are very much on alert for that.”

A recent ransomware attack in Hall County, Georgia, for example, affected access to a voter signature database and a voting precinct map on the county’s website, though spokespeople for the county said that the voting process wasn’t affected.

New York’s boards of elections – and its local governments in general – are by no means immune from such attacks. Earlier this month, Chenango County suffered a ransomware attack, encrypting roughly 200 computers and raising concerns that some emailed absentee ballot applications wouldn’t be processed. John Conklin, a state Board of Elections spokesperson, told City & State that there was no evidence that the Chenango County Board of Elections was the target in that attack, however, and the main system affected was the county board’s email system. The state sent a team to help the county board rebuild the email system, and early voting started as planned on Oct. 24.

Election security experts said there was some reason to hope that if New York’s election infrastructure was targeted, robust security protocols and backups that have been set up in recent years will help protect that infrastructure or mitigate the damage of an attack. And while dealing with cyberattacks that shut down access to important systems like voter registration databases or boards of elections’ websites is no walk in the park, it is very unlikely that a malicious attack could actually change a vote tally. “New York is in pretty good shape because its votes are all marked on hand-marked paper, and we always can refer to that,” said Mark Lindeman, interim co-director at Verified Voting, a nonpartisan election security organization.

Conklin said the state has put a lot of effort into improving its security since 2016. “Over the past four years, we have made significant improvements to increase our overall cybersecurity posture and bolster the security of key election systems and end-to-end infrastructure,” Conklin wrote in an email. “These actions include adding additional layers of protection for public-facing systems and tightening existing security between state BOE and the counties.” In addition, New York’s voting equipment undergoes extensive certification by the state before it’s allowed to be used, and then testing and auditing before and after each election. The board has also purchased intrusion detection services and established an incident response procedure for all county boards. Cybersecurity awareness training is also mandated for all state and county elections staff.

Valerie Vazquez-Diaz, a spokesperson for the New York City Board of Elections, did not comment on the specifics of the city’s security efforts, but said that the city board collaborates with other agencies. “We cannot discuss our cyber security plan,” Vazquez-Diaz wrote in an email. “We work closely with (NYC) Cyber Command but we are not at liberty to discuss them in detail.”

Lindeman said the fact that New York uses paper ballots – marked by hand, with the exception of some accessible ballot marking devices – means that even if a cyberattack targeted the ballot scanning machines that process those ballots, shutting them down or rendering them unusable, people’s votes wouldn’t be lost. “The paper ballots provide a means of recovering from almost anything that could possibly happen – not fire bombs, but any cyberattack,” Lindeman said. “You can’t actually hack paper.” Conklin told City & State that even if the ballot scanning machines – which are used to scan the paper ballots – were interfered with or had a technical issue, there is a locked box in the scanner where those ballots could be kept until they were able to be read and tallied.

But an attack that did target election scanners would be difficult to pull off, in part because state law prohibits voting machines from being connected to the internet in any way. While it’s still possible to interfere with an offline device – Lindeman pointed to Stuxnet, the U.S. and Israeli-written code that took down centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear facility, as one example – it’s more difficult than hacking a device that is connected.

What might be more likely is a cyberattack targeting a voter registration database or electronic poll book. “Anything that prevents people from voting in the first place becomes your most effective line of attack when the votes, once they’re cast, are going on voter-verified paper ballots,” Lindeman said. “I think that voter registration databases are a potentially very attractive point of attack. Because if voters all around New York come into polling places, and their poll books indicate that none of them are registered, or that they’re all registered in different precincts or different counties, that would produce quite a satisfactory degree of mayhem.”

While such an attack could produce bad delays and chaos, the state board has backups in place to deal with it. Conklin said there are paper backups of electronic poll books at every site. Vazquez-Diaz also confirmed that the city has printed poll books.

Bad actors might also try to target election night reporting systems – whether it would be communications between Board of Elections officials or the websites that we’ll all be checking feverishly for results. It would be another way of not actually changing tallies or “hacking the vote” but sowing mistrust in the election. Conklin said unofficial election night results are encrypted and transmitted to the state securely, and multiple backups are in place. “The county boards of election have the backups and election results can be pulled from the county Election Management System,” Conklin wrote. “If that failed, we always have the paper ballots as the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail.”

These kinds of contingency measures are why experts such as Becker and Lindeman urge voters to be patient and know that there are safeguards in place in the event of a problem. “Everyone is on alert for these possibilities. There are some very powerful forces seeking to disrupt our election cycle,” Becker said, speaking not about New York specifically, but the nation in general. “But we’ve tried (as) best we can and we’re better prepared than we ever have been to be resilient against those attacks. So I’m somewhat confident that we’ll be able to handle them if they happen.”

While an attack on election infrastructure such as voter databases or election night results would create mayhem that may lead to delays that could actually discourage voters and possibly breed mistrust in the system, Lindeman said he’s optimistic about the security systems New York has in place. “There’s a lot to like about our election systems,” he said. “We just need to give them a chance to work.”