With the general election six days away, topics dominating the national conversation such as the influence of Twitter on the election, the vulnerability of America’s voting technology to hackers and whether a shift to electronic voting could solve it were discussed at a University of Michigan Information and Technology Services panel discussion titled “Disrupting Democracy: How Technology is Influencing Elections.”
The event was moderated by the host of Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition, Doug Tribou, and attended by approximately 60 students, faculty and staff members.
Alex Halderman, a professor of engineering and computer science who was a panelist at the event, researches polling technology and voting machines by deconstructing government machines and conducting security analyses on them. During his remarks, he emphasized cybersecurity concerns that surround polling technology in an age of increasing digital connectivity, as well as increased cyber concerns over hacking by non-state and foreign actors.
“Unfortunately, the security is nowhere near where it should be,” Halderman said. “The problem is that about a quarter of American voters, even today, will be voting on technology on voting machines that don’t produce any form of physical record.”
To illustrate more specific concerns over exclusively electronic voting, Halderman spoke about how in 2010, Washington, D.C. staged a mock election in which all polling would be conducted via the Internet. Officials in D.C. invited computer scientists and hackers to infiltrate the voting system’s network so as to learn about potential issues with online voting. Halderman and a team of UM students took up the district’s offer and, within two days, they were in complete control of the voting system.
“I am not sure how many people can be reading the newspaper or watching TV today, and think that it would be a good idea to take our election system and just put it at a website somewhere that could be reached from anywhere in the world,” Halderman said.
Chris Dzombak, an attendee at the event, echoed Halderman’s sentiments about the vulnerability of America’s polling infrastructure, saying it has not received nearly enough attention this election cycle. Dzombak, an Ann Arbor resident who works for The New York Times as a software engineer for iOS development, said he’s discussed the increasing issue of cyberattacks on governments with his coworkers.
“We have seen more and more higher profile sort of Internet and computer security issues as these sort of things are becoming more and more common,” Dzombak said. “A paper audit trail and checking it against the results are important and they seem like common sense security measures and I am really disappointed we have not implemented these measures.”
Panelist Walter Mebane, a professor of political science and statistics, also discussed his research on U.S. elections and election forensics, a field of study that analyzes ballot formats and compares the merits of voting machines. Mebane said when a social media site like Twitter becomes the central place that voters to turn for information on the election, the inability to disprove a lot of the information disseminated on the site allows rumors and misinformation to run rampant.
“Twitter can certainly be used to spread rumors and misinformation … as it is a kind of weird universe where credible information is hard to establish,” Mebane said.
Beyond the issue of spreading misinformation, Mebane said Twitter and social media is often bifurcated, or divided based on the preferences of the consumer. Noting the high polarization characterizing the current election, he said this bifurcation lets users only seek out like-minded individuals and consume political information that aligns only with their previously held viewpoints.
“If the post-election behavior mirrors the pre-election behavior, one set, one group saying big fraud, big rigging, big problems … regardless of what happens there,” Mebane said. “That would be an issue and the question would be to counteract that message if it deserves to be counteracted to and have that message be supported or refuted by evidence.”
LSA sophomore Jamie Pew, an attendee, agreed with some of the sentiments voiced at the event, saying he has noticed his Twitter feed features views and opinions predominantly in favor of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and related topics.
“I have a very narrow perception of what’s going on in the election and what the outcome will probably be,” Pew said. “It is definitely a challenge to find the right people to follow, both Democrats and people who are conservative.”