Louisiana elections secure, but voting machines still vulnerable

Attempts to buy new system have all failed

By: - November 11, 2022 9:03 am
Early voting begins Friday for state Senate primary

Voters keep their distance from one another as they wait outside New Orleans City Hall Saturday morning, Oct. 17, 2020. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry/Louisiana Illuminator)

Tuesday marked another secure election for Louisiana, but officials say the state’s outdated voting machines are on borrowed time. 

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin reported no irregularities or complaints of voter fraud as more than 1.38 million people cast ballots in the 2022 election. 

Election Day was not entirely without surprises. Some of the Secretary of State’s online tools were unavailable to voters for a few hours Tuesday morning because of a surge in traffic. Authorities had to relocate a polling location in Kenner after a bomb threat, later proven unfounded and unrelated to the election, was made. 

However, reports from Louisiana and around the country indicate Election Day unfolded in a secure fashion, as it did in 2020 despite false claims of widespread voter fraud from former President Donald Trump and his more ardent followers. 

In an interview Tuesday evening, Louisiana Secretary of State spokesman John Tobler said Louisiana’s voting systems and procedures feature a number of redundancies and security measures that make hacking and fraud attempts difficult to pull off.

How current machines work

Louisiana’s voting machines date back to 2006. Unlike newer machines, they don’t connect to the internet or have USB ports that would allow connections to devices such as smartphones or tablets. Each machine uses two computer memory cards to store voting data. Any unused ports are sealed to prevent tampering.

Before voters arrive on Election Day, poll workers set up each machine and print out a “zero receipt” to verify that no votes have been cast yet for the election. Each machine also has a protective number, a record of all the votes cast in previous elections on that machine during its lifetime. 

Comparing a voting machine to a car, Tobler said the protective number is like the permanent odometer, and the zero receipt is the trip odometer. The protective numbers serve as a check against the votes the Secretary of State has on file for previous elections. Workers display every machine’s zero receipt for public viewing at the polling location for the entire day.

When voting closes, poll workers print out a second set of receipts from machines that indicate the total number of ballots cast. They also are displayed for public viewing at the end of the election.

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The two memory cards in each machine hold exact copies of the voting data. Poll workers keep one card with the machine and its receipts. They place the second card in a sealed bag that workers transport to the parish clerk of court. 

The clerk plugs the cards into a secure laptop connected to a network the Secretary of State’s office controls that is “air gapped,” meaning it is physically isolated from the public internet. The clerk uploads the voting data to that network.

The Secretary of State then publishes a separate copy of the unofficial results on its public website.

After an election, Ardoin’s office picks up the voting machines and the memory cards left with them and then checks that data against the unofficial returns. 

Current system vulnerable 

Because Louisiana’s outdated voting system is offline, it has eliminated much of the risks of online hacking, though no system is 100% secure, Tobler said. 

More imminent risks to the system have to do with errors and maintenance, he said. Spare parts can be difficult to find, and other states have long ago decertified the types of machines Louisiana still uses. 

Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University whose research involves electronic voting system security, said the types of machines Louisiana uses tend to have more voter error. Touch screens sometimes don’t respond or respond in ways the voter didn’t intend, posing a problem to elections that are very closely matched and the margin of victory comes down to a handful of votes, he said

Wallach testified on such a case in an election-related lawsuit that ultimately prompted Florida to decertify the same models of machines in 2008. 

Although they don’t link to the internet, Louisiana’s machines still have a number of security vulnerabilities that bad actors could exploit if given physical access to them, Wallach said. Such an attack would likely involve malware and come from an inside threat either at a polling location or a warehouse where machines are stored. 

Although Louisiana’s voting machines don’t connect to one another, a single memory card could spread malicious code to other machines if all the memory cards are read by a shared common device such as a secure laptop at the clerk’s office, Wallach said. 

However, Wallach emphasized that there have been no reports of such an attack ever occurring in Louisiana or elsewhere in the U.S.

“There’s no evidence of any of these machines ever being hacked,” Wallach said. “As far as we know, in the wild, there’s never been this class of security attack.” 

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While there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud affecting U.S. elections, there have been a few instances of election deceit. Secretary of State spokesman John Tobler said the few cases he knows of in Louisiana have typically involved vote buying or false voter registrations. 

In July, federal authorities struck a plea deal with former Amite City Police Chief Jerry Trabona and current Amite City Councilman Kristian Hart in a vote buying case. They pleaded guilty to conspiring to pay voters during the 2016 and 2020 elections. 

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has documented multiple instances of people arrested on voter fraud charges, mostly for local elections, though some did occur in the 2020 presidential election.

A Democrat in Connecticut was convicted on 14 counts of forgery after submitting falsified absentee ballots for a local election. 

Last year, Nevada resident Kirk Hartle claimed someone had cast a ballot in his dead wife’s name. Republicans initially cited the case as evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election until Hartle, a registered Republican, pleaded guilty to committing the fraud himself. 

A similar case occurred in Pennsylvania where a man pleaded guilty to casting a fraudulent ballot for Trump in his dead mother’s name. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the man said he had “listened to too much propaganda and made a stupid mistake.” 

Neither Tobler nor Dan Wallach, an elections systems expert, said they know of no cases of voter fraud involving sophisticated hacking measures that would affect large numbers of ballots.

Status of replacements

Since Ardoin took office in 2018, he has been trying to purchase new voting machines but continues to run into various obstacles, some political, some self-inflicted. 

A contract to purchase new machines four years ago was scrapped when vendors complained the bidding was rigged. Another procurement attempt stalled last year when conspiracy theorists launched a campaign to eliminate the current vendor, Dominion Voting Systems, from the competition. 

Those false claims of fraud from 2020 led the Republican-dominated Louisiana Legislature to create a new commission last year to evaluate voting system options. Ardoin, a Republican, has emphatically defended the legitimacy and accuracy of Louisiana’s election results, yet at the same time has embraced those critical of his work.  

He chaired the Voting Systems Commission and allowed widely discredited conspiracy theorists to testify. One of the guests, prominent election denier and TV pillow salesman Mike Lindell, was given special speaking privileges normally reserved for expert testimony. 

The commission ultimately decided Louisiana should use a machine-marked paper ballot system or hand-marked paper ballots with machine scanners. 

It could be months or years before the state actually gets a new system. 

Legislative committees still have to develop standards for the system, and the Secretary of State will then have to issue a request for proposals from vendors, Tobler said, adding that there is no timetable for procuring a new system.

Even after the state selects a winning bidder, the process is far from over. Public hearings have to be held, and losing bidders can challenge the decision or sue to overturn it. 

“It’s time for Louisiana to retire these old machines,” Wallach said. “They’re just old. Old computers break.”

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

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