Using cyber security to keep your ballot safe ahead of the presidential election

(WXYZ) - The election is just two weeks away, and with continued email hacks and one presidential candidate raising questions about the integrity of the election, we wanted to know just how secure is the vote?

The U.S. has now formally accused of Russian hackers of trying to interfere with our election process. So could those hackers, or anyone else, really change your vote?

Throughout southeast Michigan, city and county clerks have been testing and re-testing their ballot tabulators. They want to make sure the voting process on Nov. 8 is secure and accurate.

The feds say suspected Russian government-backed hackers have targeted voter registration databases in 18 states. Only two of those systems, in Arizona and Illinois, were actually breached.

“We don’t see any indication of an effort to change votes, nor would that be a likely scenario in the United States,” said FBI Director James Comey.

“We have no indications that Michigan voting systems were targeted or breached,” said Fred Woodhams, the spokesman for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Woodhams says after the FBI sent out that warning this summer, the state immediately started working with computer experts to make sure the voter information systems are secure.

“But if that ever were to go down, for whatever reason, local clerks have a paper copy back up, ready to go on election day,” said Woodhams.

Woodhams says it’s nearly impossible for a hacker to breach Michigan’s election system. There are 4,800 precincts in the state; each with their own tabulators that are not connected to the internet. Plus, in Michigan we have an additional layer of security because we vote using a paper ballot.

“I’ve never heard of anyone being able to hack a piece of paper,” said Woodhams. “We will maintain the paper ballot, they are securely stored in the tabulators or in other secure boxes to ensure that they can be recounted.”

But what about the 24 states that use computerized voting?

Matt Bernhard is a Computer Sciences Graduate Student at the University of Michigan, studying elections, voting systems, and computer security. Bernhard says computerized voting machines are not yet safe enough.

“There have been known security flaws in that from the get-go and none of the flaws have really been addressed by the vendors, by the government, by anybody. So currently the right thing to do is to go back to paper ballots,” Bernhard told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Bernhard works with the U of M professor who, back in 2010, was able to hack into a pilot internet voting program in Washington DC.

“Broke into it so bad that they had the cameras in the server room watching the IT guys run in and out. They had each voting session ending by playing hail to the victors,” said Bernhard.

Even though the U of M computer gurus used that example to show that the internet still is not secure enough for voting, Bernhard says on Nov. 8, you really don’t need to worry about either wide-spread election fraud – or individual voters impersonating others to cast fraudulent ballots.

“Both are just incredibly rare. We’re talking four zeros before the 1 in the .00001 percent you know chance of this happening,” said Bernhard.

“So all this talk that the election is rigged to you as a computer expert means what,” asked Catallo.

“Nothing, it’s just a tactic. It’s just a way to drum up support or energize your base,” said Bernhard.

One Loyola University study found that out of one billion ballots cast during a 14-year period – only 31 cases of voter fraud were discovered.

State officials say the paper ballots in Michigan are very safe. They also say one of the best things you can do to speed up the voting process is to make yourself familiar with the ballot before Election Day. Click HERE to do that.

If you have a story for Heather Catallo, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

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