Technology Explained

How Does Election Hacking Work? Everything Explained in Simple Terms

Gavin Phillips 26-04-2018

The fallout from the 2016 presidential election continues to dominate the news. If you flick to your favorite news channel, there’s a strong chance at least something to do with the election is still making headlines.


And for a good reason. Whatever side of the political spectrum you hail from, there’s a lot to talk about.

One of the major sticking points is that of election hacking. Allegations of election hacking and tampering continue to swirl, and with more elections looming near, this combustible topic is going to feature increasingly.

However, election hacking is a broad term. With one eye on the midterms and another on the future, let’s try and understand exactly what election hacking is.

What Is Election Hacking?

Election hacking has a broad set of definitions, but you can boil it down to one central concept: manipulation of the voting process in favor of a candidate Hacking Can Win the Lottery: Can It Win an Election? Electronic voting machines are prone to tampering, but there are other ways in which hacking can influence or outright decide the outcome of an election -- and it's all cause for serious concern. Read More or political party.

Election hacking is also known as electoral fraud. At other times critics refer to it as vote rigging or electoral interference. But the objective is always the same—to directly influence the outcome of a vote.


One challenge facing voters is pinning down the effects of election hacking. Voters encounter difficulty because it isn’t usually a single observable issue taking place. In many cases, the manipulation is subtle, plays out over a lengthy period, and isn’t apparent until after the election results (but not all the time).

Around the world, numerous totalitarian states feature only name on the ballot: that of the existing leader or party, or parties subservient to the ruling party. This happens in countries like China, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam (there are several more, too). These are single-party dictatorships, however, and differ somewhat from rigged voting situations.

There are countless rigged election examples. For instance, the Ugandan general election of 2006, the Kenyan presidential election of 2007, the Romanian presidential election of 2014, the Syrian presidential election of 2014, and hundreds more all fit this category.

What Election Hacking Looks Like in Practice

Despite the many examples of electoral interference around the globe, election hacking boils down to just three major, coverall categories. Why? Because together, these three categories form a cohesive strategy for election hacking.


1. Manipulate the Voters Before the Election

The first strategy is to manipulate the voters before they hit the polling booths. Manipulating voters before an election is itself multifaceted, but there are prominent recent examples for you to examine.

The post-2016 presidential election analysis from various government agencies made it clear that Russia had run a “messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.'”

In early November 2017, Congress released a series of Russian-backed Facebook ads that targeted voters of specific demographics. The advertisements promote divisive, emotional topics designed to begin online arguments (some of which spilled out into public). Other revelations saw Russian-run Facebook pages uniting different political pages under unique hashtags to raise awareness.

“Fake news” plays a significant part in voter influence, as does social media in the distribution of the false stories Avoid Fake News and Verify the Truth With These 5 Sites and Apps There are plenty of lies floating around on the internet. From extensions that flag notorious fake news outlets to websites that bust hoaxes and myths, here are the five resources you need. Read More . The severity of fake news varies. At times, fake news is a regular news report that has its truth economically twisted to suit the goal of the news outlet and their political choices.


However, at other times, fake news is outright lies spread throughout social media (sometimes using the aforementioned targeted advertising to hit key demographics that are more likely to share the fake media and thus increase its reach).

Facebook isn’t the only place where voters were unduly influenced How Can Social Networks Get Rid of Misinformation and Harassment? We see fake news stories and serious harassment on Facebook and Twitter, but the social giants are trying to stop it. What have they done? And will it help make the internet a better place? Read More by other nations. Twitter is also rife with fake bot accounts Don't Be Fooled: How to Spot a Russian Bot on Social Media How can you know if the person you're passionately "debating" with online is a real person and not a Russian bot? Use these guidelines. Read More that only retweet specific hashtags. Reddit has well-known problems with downvote and upvote brigading, forcing dissenting voices toward the bottom of the conversation.

Fake news regularly appears in national newspapers, making bold, false allegations that target specific demographics or make sweeping, generalized statements. But when proven false, the newspaper prints a minute apology buried in the middle of an edition months down the line.

Another common voter manipulation tactic is to split the opposition support, then manufacture conflict between those parties. The US political system has only two major parties that will realistically win control of the three branches. Thus, splitting voters within parties isn’t a common tactic. However, in the UK, this tactic becomes more potent due to the overlap of many political parties.


2. Manipulate the Votes and Machines

Directly after the 2016 presidential election, voters were left wondering if nefarious individuals tampered with their voting machines. At the time, the Department of Homeland Security had found no evidence.

However, there were attacks against at least one US voting software supplier, while a leaked NSA document confirmed a breach with a Florida-based voting-equipment vendor. A Bloomberg report in 2017 alleges “Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states,” drastically increasing the scope of potential interference.

A direct attack on the voting machines seems unlikely; outrageous, even. They are a bastion of democracy, after all. But hackers have repeatedly shown just how easy it is to exploit a voting machine. At the enormous DEFCON cybersecurity convention, it took hackers less than two hours to hack a US voting machine. The DEFCON organizers pooled 30 voting machines from a variety of manufacturers, none of which remained secure.

One wireless hack exploited a 14-year-old vulnerability in unpatched Windows XP machines. Using the exploit, Danish security researcher Carsten Schürmann could change the machine vote tally How Electronic Voting Works: Pros and Cons vs. Paper Voting When everything is going digital, why are we still voting by paper? Let's consider the pros and cons of electronic voting. Read More from anywhere on the planet.

Despite what both major US political party supporters yell, there is still no evidence that there was direct voting machine manipulation affecting the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. But “[w]ithout question, our voting systems are weak and susceptible,” says Jake Braun, CEO of security consulting firm Cambridge Global Advisors. “Thanks to the contributions of the hacker community today, we’ve uncovered even more about exactly how.”

3. Manipulate the Infrastructure

Finally, consider how manipulating the infrastructure around an election also plays a part in the outcome. Causing mass-disruption to citizens attempting to cast a vote is another way to hack an election. Disturbing the election process on the day of, or day before, can sway numbers.

Disruption levels vary, as you might imagine. An extreme example is the 1984 Rajneeshee attack. A religious cult poisoned over 700 Oregonians with salmonella to stop them voting in county elections, almost killing several in the process. At the same time, the cult registered thousands of homeless people to vote, promising them food in return. This level of disruption to cause “natural” voter fraud is rare. Also, it is difficult to contain, as the cult quickly realized.

However, widespread disruption doesn’t require poisoning or busloads of homeless people. A hacker with access to a voter database could delete or corrupt voter logs. Sounds outlandish? This exact hack took place at the aforementioned DEFCON conference. As you have already seen, Russian hackers hit voting systems in 39 states, so it isn’t entirely out of the question.

Another infrastructure disruption tactic is a powerful DDoS to take political information offline at critical moments. A Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack is easy to organize, as well as cheap and very effective. Political sites can be forced offline under the strain of a DDoS attack How Can You Protect Yourself Against a DDoS Attack? DDoS attacks – a method used to overburden Internet bandwidth – seem to be on the rise. We show you how you can protect yourself from a distributed denial of service attack. Read More .

So while mobilizing individuals or even thousands of people to commit voter fraud through disruption is difficult, using digital systems is not.

Election Hacking Is Broad

These three categories cover the majority of the electoral tampering spectrum. Unfortunately, it is broad.

But in democratic countries with a strong history of stable voting (as well as the peaceful transition of power), claims of electoral fraud are usually without basis 5 Non-Partisan Sites to Be an Educated, Informed Voter This November Find unbiased opinions or fact-based information on the U.S. Elections 2016. Make an informed decision with accurate data on the Clinton vs. Trump debate or the Democrats vs. Republicans contest. Read More .

The problem with such assertions is the resulting reactions harm those that already struggle to vote, in turn creating another form of election hacking (this falls under section one and three, by the way).

Image Credit: lisafx/Depositphotos

Related topics: Hacking, Politics, Voting.

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  1. Stuart Goldkind
    May 5, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    One of the easiest ways to slant an election is through manipulation of the voter rolls. Sadly, the individuals affected are not aware of the widespread nature of the scam, and are told to fill out a provisional ballot that never gets counted. Here is a link to one way voters are being disenfranchised, with possibly millions of votes being thrown out:

  2. Steve Spence
    May 4, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    You forgot the most prevalent. States not requiring photo ID's allowing non-citizens and dead people to vote.

  3. bitmap
    April 30, 2018 at 3:45 am

    Meanwhile the US intelligence and security apparatus lost control of it's weaponized software tools. Among the AWOL tools are utilities that let an attacker leave the "fingerprints" of any other known attacker. When used according to the documentation the resulting forensic data left on target systems point to users in other countries. The effort to demonize Wiki Leaks is almost laughable. Nobody is denying that their releases of the code and documentation is authentic. From my perspective, even if they are in cahoots w/ the Russians, the intelligence agencies of the US have lost their credibility. It's like the little boy who cried wolf. Odds are no better than 50/50 that it was the Russians who compromised the DNC servers. Therefore it is just as likely that the story of Russian involvement was manufactured by players within the US government.

  4. dragonmouth
    April 29, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    "What Is Election Hacking?"
    It is nothing more than the latest invented crisis.

    "you can boil it down to one central concept: manipulation of the voting process in favor of a candidate or political party."
    LOL!!! Isn't that the goal of every political campaign?! To try to influence the voters to vote for YOUR candidate rather than that slimy dirt bag from the other party? "Manipulation of the voting process in favor of a candidate or political party" has been going on in the United States since the first election. "Manipulation of the voting process in favor of a candidate or political party" was invented by the same folks that invented democracy, the good citizens of Ancient Athens. To start complaining about "voter influencing" now is disingenuous.

    "electoral fraud..... vote rigging or electoral interference"
    As Chicago Mayor Richard Daley used to say "vote early and vote often."
    Google Tammany Hall about electoral fraud and vote rigging.

    Recently a special election was held locally to fill an empty State Legislature seat. The campaign preceding the election was a mud-slinging fest. In a nutshell, the Democrats portrayed the Republican candidate as a "Trump lackey". The Republicans reciprocated by linking the the Democrat to the dozen or so Democrat legislators that were recently indicted, tried and convicted of corruption. Neither side offered any concrete proof, just allegations, innuendo and guilt by association. There was no mention made of any issues by either the political commercials or the media. If that is not a prime example of "manipulation of the voting process in favor of a candidate or political party", I don't know what is.

    • Wearyman
      May 7, 2018 at 9:17 pm

      You hit the nail on the head. A tempest in a tea cup. How utterly amazing the time that has been wasted on this bull crap.

  5. Mike
    April 27, 2018 at 11:23 am

    What’s the source for the “substantial” claim ....”“Fake news” plays a significant part in voter influence,”?

    • Pat Levy
      May 4, 2018 at 4:52 pm

      The only evidence I've seen is that the 'Fake News' sites were clicked on by a low percentage of users. I don't even know if they could identify the American users. So somebody in Bosnia thinks that Clinton ran a brothel out of a nightclub in NY (or wherever that was).

  6. Gazoo
    April 26, 2018 at 7:41 pm

    > boil it down to one central concept: manipulation of the voting process in favor of a candidate or political party.

    What happens when the Mainstream Media loses it's monopoly on election manipulation, divisiveness, labeling, hyperbole, backroom deals, fake news, propaganda? You get 24-hour coverage on fake news centered around social media memes.

    Isn't it about time we start looking at the rot in our own media? If we can't do that, we continue to play the tools and fools of those in power.

  7. Howard Pearce
    April 26, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    " one central concept: manipulation of the voting process in favor of a candidate or political party."
    So that would include "propaganda" on various media that would normally be covered by freedom of speech and of the press it it were not about voting, right ?

    Well I'm sorry - I'm going to support those liberal civil rights over some authoritarian's idea of controlling election fraud.

    We simply have to realize these people are not anyway near to real liberals as they may say.