Michigan election director: No election hack evidence

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The state’s election director said there is no evidence that Michigan’s presidential election results were manipulated or hacked amid concern from a group of computer scientists and election lawyers about that potential.

The group is urging former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to request a recount of the election results in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, according to a report originally from New York magazine. They’re concerned the election results may have been manipulated, according to the report.

One prominent computer scientist in the group, University of Michigan cybersecurity expert Alex Halderman, said in a blog post that an apparent discrepancy between pre-election polls and unofficial results were “probably not” due to a cyberattack.

But Halderman said the only way to know for sure is to conduct a recount of Michigan’s paper ballots. He did not immediately return phone calls or emails from The Detroit News, but detailed his concerns in a blog post on Medium.com.

“The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence  —  paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania,” Halderman wrote in a blog post.

“Unfortunately, nobody is ever going to examine that evidence unless candidates in those states act now, in the next several days, to petition for recounts.”

State law requires an automatic recount for races with margins of victory of 2,000 votes or lower. Losing candidates can request a recount of certain precincts, but must pay for the effort. The cost is $25 per precinct if the election is close or $125 per precinct if the election isn’t close, said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Green Party candidate Jill Stein has raised $2 million to pursue recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with a goal of raising $4 million. Michigan’s deadline to request a recount is Monday. Stein would have to pay $125 per percinct since she didn’t finish close to Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who has won by more than 10,000 votes over Clinton.

Michigan’s elections director at the Secretary of State’s Office downplayed concerns about a potential hack of the state’s voting results because he said there is no evidence that has happened.

“Really, evidence needs to come forward showing that that has occurred,” Thomas said. “Then actions could be considered at that point. But to date, there’s been no evidence. It’s just conjecture, and I don’t think that serves anyone’s good purpose.”

Yet that’s why Halderman, who is also director of Michigan’s Center for Computer Security & Society, is calling for a recount: To make sure the results weren’t hacked or manipulated.

In a sophisticated attack, Halderman said that hackers could inject malware into the software installed on voting machines — even potentially the optical scanners used in Michigan to tally voting results — without elections workers being able to tell.

Because voting machines are computers, hackers can alter their software with malware that can cause them “to give any answer whatsoever,” Halderman wrote.

U.S. voting machines “have serious cybersecurity problems,” he said, and this fact has been documented “beyond any doubt” in peer-reviewed articles and state-sponsored studies conducted by Halderman and other cybersecurity experts.

Halderman goes on to describe how simple it is to install “vote-stealing malware” on a voting machine “in just a few seconds” which can change the electronic records of the votes. Some hackers could have designed malware that can delete itself from the machine by the time the polls closed, according to Halderman.

Halderman wrote that examining the physical evidence will help ensure the results were accurate and “allay doubt” about whether they’re untainted by hackers who could have inserted malware into machines that could have gone undetected by elections workers checking the machines for accuracy prior to Election Day.

Thomas said the fact that Michigan uses simple optical scanning Machines that count paper ballots rather than electronic voting machines helps guard against hackers.

Some have complained the state’s optical scanning machines sometimes miss markings for votes as well.

Thomas said because the state’s voting machines are not connected to the internet on Election Day and because each township or city in Michigan conducts independent accuracy reviews of all the state’s voting machines, “there’s very little opportunity for somebody to hack an election,” Thomas said.

Halderman wrote: “It doesn’t matter whether the voting machines are connected to the internet. Shortly before each election, poll workers copy the ballot design from a regular desktop computer in a government office, and use removable media (like the memory card from a digital camera) to load the ballot onto each machine. That initial computer is almost certainly not well secured, and if an attacker infects it, vote-stealing malware can hitch a ride to every voting machine in the area.”

The only way to know with certainty whether that happened — or didn’t happen — is to compare the electronic voting results with an actual hand count of the paper ballots.

The Clinton campaign did not immediately return an email from The Detroit News about whether it will request a recount in Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania.