Can The Electoral College Be Hacked?

by Seth Millstein

The integrity of the 2016 election has been under intense scrutiny since almost the moment the results were announced. We have Jill Stein demanding recounts in multiple states, the CIA accusing Russia of interfering with the vote, and faithless electors pledging to go rogue when the electoral college meets on December 19th. In the name of thoroughness, it’s worth asking one more question about the election that hasn't received as much attention: Is it possible to hack the electoral college vote?

Probably not — at least, not by the traditional definition of the word “hack." Let’s take look at how the electoral college voting process actually works.

First, the electors meet in their respective states to cast their votes for president and vice president. Each elector fills out two ballots (one for president, one for vice president), and signs it. After counting the votes, each state’s electors prepare something called the Certificate of Vote. This is the official document that states the outcome of the state’s electoral college vote, and it includes the names of all of the state’s electors as well. Every elector has to sign this document to confirm that the vote tally is correct (To get an idea what it looks like, here are the Certificates of Vote from 2012).

At that point, six copies of the Certificate of Vote are made, all of which are immediately sealed and sent by registered mail to various officials:

  • One copy goes to the President of the Senate — in this case, Vice President Joe Biden*
  • Two copies go to the archivist of the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland
  • Two copies go to the state’s Secretary of State; one of these is made available to the public, while the other is held in case the archivist or President of the Senate don’t receive their copies
  • One copy goes to the chief judge of the Federal District Court of the district in which the electors met; this copy, too, is held as a backup copy in case another copy doesn’t reach its intended recipient

Included with each Certificate of Vote is a different document called the Certificate of Ascertainment, which is prepared earlier by the governor and contains the names of the state’s electors; this is to confirm that the people who voted at the electoral college meeting were actually the official electors.

As you can see, this is a pretty difficult process to hack. It’s all done by hand; the electors themselves certify the results; the certificates are immediately sent to the relevant official; and multiple copies are prepared as backups. There’s not much room for tampering there.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Of course, even with this process, one can imagine all sorts of fantastical ways in which the vote could be altered: Postal workers swapping the results before they reach government hands, thieves breaking into the Senate mailroom, U.S. Postal Service trucks getting hijacked, the archivist getting paid off, and so on. But that’s the kind of stuff that happens more in an Ocean’s Eleven movie than in reality, so unless we’re actually living in a heist film, it’s hard to see how the electoral college vote could be hacked.

Make no mistake: Many aspects of the voting process in the U.S. are in dire need of improvement. Voter suppression and disenfranchisement, foreign interference, and yes, even the electoral college itself are all serious inhibitors of true, direct democracy. But the manner in which the electors cast their votes is, all things considered, relatively airtight.

*The Vice President of the United States serves as President of the Senate