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The voting machine hacking threat you probably haven’t heard about

Modems help election officials report results quickly, but security experts say they’re too dangerous to trust.

An election worker loads ballots into a scanning machine.

An election worker loads ballots into a scanning machine at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections, in October 2020, in Doral, Fla. | Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

The modems, which send vote data from precincts to central offices using cellphone networks, help election officials satisfy the public’s demand for rapid results. But putting any networking connection on an election system opens up new ways to attack it that don’t require physical access to machines, and security experts say the risks aren’t worth the rewards.

“You’re counting on a bunch of infrastructure to deliver data back and forth, and it’s well within the capabilities of nation-state hackers to break into that infrastructure,” said Dan Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor who has repeatedly exposed flaws in election equipment.

While tampering with unofficial results wouldn’t actually corrupt an election’s outcome, it could fuel misinformation about both the accuracy of the vote tally and the integrity of the process. That’s a particular concern since the 2020 election, in which then-President Donald Trump seized on large discrepancies between early returns and final vote counts to falsely allege widespread fraud.

At least six states — Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota — use modems to transmit results in a combined 36 counties, according to a POLITICO survey. Rhode Island uses them statewide, and Washington, D.C., uses them citywide. Wisconsin, which the nonprofit election integrity group Verified Voting identified as using modem-equipped devices, did not respond to inquiries about whether its counties use the feature.

While there’ve been no reports of modems being hacked in previous elections, the vulnerabilities are well known, and hackers have the tools to exploit them.

And the mere existence of these modem vulnerabilities could make it easier for Trump allies to disrupt the midterm elections and future contests with more unfounded hacking claims, say some former election officials.

“In the current hyperpolarized atmosphere, modems in voting machines are now not only a potential target for cyberattacks, but, perhaps more importantly, information operations seeking to cast doubt on the legitimacy of U.S. elections,” said David Levine, a former election director for Ada County, Idaho. He’s now a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy working on elections integrity issues.