THE BLOG
11/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can the National Guard Safeguard Voting Machines?

Suppose I were one of those people with a voice in my head telling me either that Democrats or Republicans were evil and must be stopped. Or suppose, for some other reason, I believed it my patriotic duty to illegally alter election results on November 4. Here's one way, with just a couple hours of simple internet research and a call or two to my fellow "patriots," that I might go about it:

1. Find a voting precinct that uses the ES & S M100 ballot tabulator

The gunmetal gray Elections Systems Software machine, which resembles a mid-'80s office copier, can be found in 6,842 voting precincts in 137 counties. On November 4, as many as nine million voters will feed their marked-up paper ballots into the M100's optical scanner, making it America's third most popular voting machine.

Note: I might consider Sacramento County, which has 1,000 of the machines at 571 its voting precincts. Also Sacramento County offers a race where a few votes could make the difference: the 4th Congressional District contest between Tom McClintock (R) and Charlie Brown (D).

2. Replace the PCMCIA card

The PMCIA card is the component that essentially tells the M100 how to keep score. Technically, swapping one out is simple -- supposedly, if I'm able to swap out a digital camera's memory card, I could do this.

First, I would need a new PMCIA card. They're widely available online for about $90.

Next I'd need assistance from a software engineer, and it would help if he knows a little about QNX Real Time Operating Software for embedded devices. "This isn't a big deal," said the software engineer I called. "The software is the easy part."

With my replacement PCMCIA card good to go, I'd have to know how to remove the M100's existing card. Fortunately, there's a manual online with helpful diagrams.

The hardest part would be actually making the swap, because I'd have to physically access the M100, which is watched at voting precincts by volunteers. I might make my move during the middle of Election Day, when polling places are quietest. Or perhaps later on, when I could blend into the crowd. In either case, it would probably make the job easier if I become a volunteer myself. Sacramento County takes volunteers on a first-come, first-serve basis as long they are U.S. citizens of at least sixteen years of age on Election Day (students need at least a 2.5 grade average). I would even get paid $120.

I would probably choose to make the swap before the M100 arrives at the precinct, however. In Sacramento County, on the Saturday prior to Election Day, precinct captains pick up the M100s from county storage and drive them to a "secure" location, most often their homes. From Saturday afternoon until Tuesday morning, the machines are a common sight in carports. My software engineer likened the safeguarding of the M100 to "a wall a hundred feet high around it, except for one small stretch just four feet high that anyone can step over." The Saturday-to-Tuesday period, known as the "sleepover," is the four-foot-high part.

With my hands on the machine, I'd still encounter some security measures. According to tests commissioned by California's Secretary of State Debra Bowen, however, the physical key locks can be picked in "five seconds to one minute" and the wire and paper tamper-evidence seal can be easily bypassed. Also, Bowen's test concluded, the "attack would be unlikely to be detected."

I would need to a new seal, though, to cover my tracks. The seals have no magnetic code, just a number, so with a little help from the Photoshop jockey who works nights at the local Kinko's, making one would be a piece of cake.

Troubleshooting

On Election Day in Sacramento County, one percent of precincts are randomly selected for a manual count of the ballots, to check voting machine accuracy. On top of that, a handful of M100s fail during each election -- dead batteries and so forth. Accordingly, the chances of successfully hacking a machine are about 98 in 100.

It bears noting that due to the security and auditing measures Sec. Bowen has implemented, it's probably more difficult to hack M100s in California than in any other state. According to Dan Wallach, an associate professor of Computer Science at Rice and a participant in Bowen's testing, Texas is the antithesis of California in terms of safeguards. Ohio may be even worse.

One thing that might thwart hackers is security personnel above and beyond election workers. Sec. Bowen sought to hire a bonded service like Brinks to deliver the voting machines. The plan was a casualty to feasibility, largely in terms of logistics.

Civilian law enforcement officers could do the job, but since several are elected themselves, concerns of bias would be difficult to surmount.

An alternative might be the National Guard. In California, only about 2,000 of the 25,500 full and part-time Guardsmen are currently deployed. Safeguarding machines, particularly at precinct captains' homes, could fall under the organization's purview -- I was surprised to learn that, in addition to responding to emergencies, the National Guard runs homeless shelters and helps children learn to read. "We're like a Swiss Army knife," said Lieutenant Colonel Jon Siepmann of California National Guard's Public Affairs Office. He also informed me that "Any mission we receive is a decision for civilian leadership."

Individual Guardsmen would cost counties approximately $25 per day more than election volunteers. Just one Guardsman, sitting with a thermos of coffee in a car across from the precinct captain's house, would probably deter hackers. Guardsmen could learn their assignments just a short time prior to dispatch. Thus -- the integrity of the National Guard aside -- they would be as unlikely as anyone to be involved in hacking, and far less likely than volunteers.

Alice Jarboe, the assistant registrar of voters in Sacramento County, told me she thought using the National Guard was a good idea, provided the Guardsmen wore plain clothes at polling places, so as not to disenfranchise voters. (This would not be an issue, of course, were the Guardsmen stationed away from precincts during the critical period before the election.) In addition, Jarboe said, California would need a priority system so Guardsmen could be deployed first to hotly-contested areas, like the 4th District. She expressed budgetary concerns as well, but took into account the wisdom of a senior colleague: "Money's no issue when it comes to an election."

At present there are no plans in California to bring in any security personnel or implement additional safeguards. Secretary of State Bowen's press secretary, Kate Folmar, has not yet returned calls on this topic.

Next up:

Can the National Guard Safeguard Voting Machines in Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina?