Voting machines and other devices that tally and store votes are unlikely to be connected to the internet. But they might be connected to the so-called sneakernet, slang for the method of transmitting electronic information by physically carrying it from one place to another.
Throughout Tuesday, election officials in many parts of the country will be extracting voting data from machines onto thumb-sized flash drives and hand-carrying them to central locations to tabulate and report results. Election experts said when used correctly these storage devices represent a much safer method for sharing data than the internet.
“It’s classic sneakernet,” said Charles Stewart III, professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. By the end of election night some voting hubs can “end up with a trash can full of thumb drives,” he said, “to make sure they’re not cross infecting the machine that’s accumulating the results.”
While casting votes in the U.S. has long been and remains a paper-intensive exercise, much of the tabulating, reporting and auditing process has gone digital—often relying on specialized software and computers that are “air-gapped,” or purposely disconnected from the internet to avoid hacking attempts.
That is where the flash drives come in. When voters’ paper ballots are processed through a scanning machine, a flash drive can be used to transport the digital vote tallies to a central computer that combines tallies from all the scanning machines.
A best practice is to avoid connecting that central computer to the internet. So flash drives are also used to send total vote counts to another computer that is internet-connected to publish election-night results.
“The argument is that there is enough data that you have to do it electronically,” said Duncan Buell, a University of South Carolina computer science professor who sits on the board of elections in Richland County, S.C. “If you do it electronically on flash drives that you know don’t ever go anywhere except where you think they go, that’s a reasonable approach.”
Richland County will likely use about 150 flash drives on election night, he said. They will be transported from scanning machines at different precincts back to a secured election center, where the results will be combined.
Los Angeles County, the largest electoral jurisdiction in the country, uses flash drives as well, but only inside a single operation center. The paper ballots from its precincts are transported there and run on scanners. Those scanners are connected to an internal network with tabulation computers, and flash drives are used to send vote data from there to reporting computers that make the results public.
“Once paper ballots are scanned at the tally operation center, the results are transferred using a flash drive with a full security and audit trail (such as dual custody and logging) from a computer connected to our internal (air gap/closed) network to a computer connected to a different network that shares the results,” a spokesman for the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk said in an email.
Rob Bathurst, chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm Digitalware Inc., says there are cybersecurity risks associated with flash drives. Flash drives bought at retailers should be clean because they are coming directly from factories. But every time they are plugged into a computer, there is an opportunity for malicious software such as ransomware to implant itself on the drive.
Colorado elections officials work to avoid such vulnerabilities, said Hilary Rudy, deputy director of elections at the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. The state provides new, single-use flash drives or specially encrypted ones to all counties, which transfer election data in a similar fashion as Los Angeles County. “We have rules that require that it be single use, or wipeable media that be used to transfer that information,” Ms. Rudy said.
Election Systems & Software LLC is the top U.S. seller of voting-machine technology. The company said about 1,600 county jurisdictions use its voting equipment, and more than 90% of its scanners use encrypted, removable flash drives.
ES&S said that customers use only industrial-grade flash drives, which are made in the U.S. by Poway, Calif.-based Delkin Devices Inc. No other flash drives work on ES&S voting machines.
Flash drives streamline the process of reporting unofficial election results, said Barbara Simons, chair of the board of directors at the nonprofit Verified Voting and former president of the Association for Computing Machinery.
But she said any electronic method comes with the potential for mistakes or abuse, such as software bugs that might give a vote to candidate A when it should have gone to candidate B. So it is important to audit paper records as part of the process.
“We can’t trust computers alone. We need hand-marked paper ballots, systems for voters with disabilities, a strong chain of custody and postelection ballot audits,” she said.
—Sara Castellanos and John McCormick contributed to this article.
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