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Here Are All the Ways That Technology Could Screw Up Today’s Election

Hacks, malfunctions, and data sharing could shape the outcome.
November 8, 2016

As millions of people head to polling stations to cast their votes, there can be no denying that today will have its fair share of drama—and much of it could be influenced by technology.

For one thing, hackers could send polling stations into chaos. They probably won’t mess with your ballot, though—if they do try to skew results, it would be by tampering with voter registration information. So if you turn up to the booths and are unable to cast your vote, there’s a chance that hackers are to blame.

Then there’s the issue of Internet voting. In total, 31 states use the Internet to collect votes in some way—and in Alaska, anyone’s allowed to vote through a website. That’s despite the fact that it’s demonstrably a risky practice, open to hacking and manipulation.

Next on the list: voting machines. While many electronic voting machines don’t connect to the Internet, they can be hacked if somebody gains physical access to them. If someone were determined enough, it would be possible to alter votes in a single swing state, like Florida, that could have a profound impact on the result of the presidential race.

Even if nefarious forces don’t strike, there’s scope for things to go wrong with the machines. While in theory it should be possible to cross-check results from  a voting machine that crashes or has some other software fault, the process does require that the machines produce a paper record. Sadly, 11 states will today be using voting machines that don’t produce such records.

There’s also the outside chance that technology creates a socially constructed impact on the result. A team of data scientists and journalists going by the name VoteCastr plans to break with convention and publish results of its analysis on Slate throughout the day. While it will provide a tantalizing glimpse into unfolding events, concerns have been expressed about its potential to warp results as people gain an early indication of whether it’s worth bothering to vote.

There is, of course, the possibility that the risk of all of these hacks and faults may have been exaggerated. Fewer states are using paperless electronic voting machines for this election than the last, and more of them are also requesting using audits to check votes after the election. Today’s voting could, in spite of all the media froth, be more secure than it has been in the past.

Whatever happens, though, one group of journalists and students will be mining social media to detect problems with the process of voting itself. Over 150 people will sift through data as part of the Electionland initiative, in order to ascertain if citizens are able to exercise their right to vote. Which, despite all the concerns, is certainly something everyone should cling to.

(Read more: “How Hackers Could Send Your Polling Station into Chaos,” “The Internet Is No Place for Elections,” “Election Monitors to Use Social Media as a Way to Find Voting Problems”)

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