Hacking Expert Manipulates Voting Machine With a Ballpoint Pen in Court 

Lisa F. Young / shutterstock.com
Lisa F. Young / shutterstock.com

In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, President Joe Biden won the state of Georgia by a narrow margin. The final certified results after recounts showed that Biden received 49.5% of the vote, while the incumbent, Donald Trump, received 49.3%. This translated to a victory for Biden by less than 12,000 votes. 

Voter concerns in Georgia, as across the entire nation, were quickly shot down. Election officials green-lit the election, and Biden ascended to his throne to begin his reign. 

But voters had doubts. 

On top of the suspected fraud, some well documented, of the mail-in ballot systems set in place ostensibly for the pandemic, one voting machine continued to be the source of voter concern. Dominion Voting Systems.  

Dominion Voting Systems’ technology was used in multiple states across the country. From the start, voters noted that the machines switched votes from one candidate to another, and numerous glitches were reported throughout election night that resulted in inaccurate vote counts favoring Biden. 

Some concerned voters expressed concern that voting machines were connected to servers outside the United States, allowing unauthorized manipulation of election results.  

Multiple concerns were raised repeatedly regarding the overall reliability and security of electronic voting systems. Many felt that Dominion Voting Systems’ technology was inherently flawed and susceptible to manipulation, something America was repeatedly assured couldn’t happen. 

Until one computer hacker with a ballpoint pen in a Georgia courtroom showed how easily it could, in fact, happen. 

Meet Alex Halderman, a professor at the University of Michigan and a skilled computer hacker. He was tasked with testifying in a Georgia courtroom regarding voting machine integrity. Visions of movie hackers tapping away frantically at keyboards while rows of green data reflect in their glasses come to mind, but the reality was shocking. 

The techniques he employed to manipulate the Dominion voting machines were anything but high-tech, highlighting the ease with which one could override the machine and force it to do whatever was necessary. 

For his demonstration, Halderman used a $10 smart card and a Bic pen to put a voting machine into “safe mode.” From there, he had a free run of the system, gaining “super user” access and installing malware, changing settings, editing files, and altering every part of the machine’s operational coding. 

Despite the now-exposed flaws in Georgia’s voting system, election officials quickly emphasized the “lack of known hacking incidents” in elections within the state. They argue that a combination of security measures, including locks, seals, and vigilant poll workers, safeguards against potential interference. State Election Board member Matt Mashburn has questioned the practicality of exploiting Halderman’s flaws, pointing out the challenges in manipulating multiple machines simultaneously.  

Of course, a hacker’s pride is their ability to hide their activities, and the exposed vulnerabilities could pose broader implications if someone gained access to election management servers. 

Halderman’s findings might be dismissed out of hand if they were not backed up by CISA (U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency) in the early summer of 2022. A malicious actor or group could create chaos in an election by tampering with touchscreen programming and other elements of electronic voting systems. 

Halderman’s courtroom testimony and demonstration were part of an ongoing trial in Georgia that will decide the fate of electronic voting machines in the state. Election integrity activists advocate for a shift to hand-marked paper ballots tallied by scanners, while election officials insist “there’s nothing to see here.” 

Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg has a crucial decision to make that could significantly impact how elections work in Georgia ahead of the 2024 election. Lawyers for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger argue that potential risks to election security aren’t the same as constitutional violations and that deciding how to manage the issue is a political judgment rather than a legal one. The outcome of this trial could shape how elections are conducted in Georgia moving forward. 

Dominion, the company that makes voting machines, has been a target for former President Trump’s supporters, who believe the machines were used to manipulate the election against him. Dominion has taken solid legal action in response, including reaching a $787 million settlement with Fox News in April.  

It’s unlikely that Totenberg will rule to ban the machines that helped win Biden the White House, but at the very least, Halderman made it clear how easily the machines could be manipulated. Conspiracy theory or fact, poll workers should frisk voters for ballpoint pens before letting them near a Dominion voting machine.