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Clear and Present Danger to U.S. Vote

We are not doing enough to shore up states’ vulnerable voting technology.

March 5, 2018

Cross-posted from News­day

The head of the National Secur­ity Agency and U.S. cyber command has told Congress that the White House hasn’t instruc­ted him to block a Russian attack against U.S. elec­tion systems this fall. “If we don’t change the dynamic here, this is going to continue,” Adm. Michael Rogers said, adding to warn­ings from the secret­ary of state and chiefs of U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies that voting systems are vulner­able to attacks by foreign actors.

Russian meddling in the 2016 elec­tion is now almost univer­sally acknow­ledged. And while there’s no evid­ence that Moscow’s cyber­activ­ity changed vote totals, we know Russian agents targeted voting systems in at least 21 states — and that whatever meth­ods the Russi­ans honed this past cycle they will likely use against us in the 2018 and 2020 elec­tions.

The prob­lem of vulner­able voting tech­no­logy pred­ates the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. In 2015, a Bren­nan Center report found that voting machines in 42 states were at least a decade old. We warned that deteri­or­at­ing machines were partic­u­larly vulner­able to break­downs and hack­ing, and our aging equip­ment fore­shad­owed a crisis of secur­ity and reli­ab­il­ity. In a survey just weeks ago, the Bren­nan Center found that 41 states likely will use decade-old voting machines this fall. The prob­lem hasn’t gone away.

With the midterm elec­tions eight months away, we get a second chance at tack­ling our crisis of inac­tion. But right now, the odds are not look­ing prom­ising for Amer­ican demo­cracy. This has to change.

Luck­ily for the Empire State, its voting systems don’t face the same vulner­ab­il­it­ies as others across the nation. New York processes paper ballots filled out by the voters, which means a strong audit would be able to catch hacks or fail­ures in the voting system. The tech­no­logy is relat­ively new, so it’s been subject to more rigor­ous secur­ity test­ing than machines around the coun­try that were purchased more than 10 years ago.

But the picture is much bleaker in many other corners of the coun­try. Elec­tion offi­cials in 33 states have told the Bren­nan Center they must replace their systems by 2020, but lack the funds to do so. And 13 states — includ­ing Pennsylvania, Geor­gia and Texas — still use anti­quated paper­less machines in many or all of their polling places. State elec­tion offi­cials just don’t have the resources to replace them.

Given what’s at stake, Congress and state legis­latures must invest to protect elec­tions. Congress can help states with imme­di­ate time-limited grants to replace aging paper­less elec­tronic voting machines; perform compre­hens­ive threat analyses of crit­ical elec­tion systems; upgrade the hard­ware and soft­ware that support voter regis­tra­tion; and conduct post-elec­tion audits to confirm outcomes and build confid­ence with voters.

Congress could do all this by passing the Secure Elec­tions Act. This bill, spear­headed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and James Lank­ford (R-Okla.), would author­ize the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity to grant $386 million to the states to enhance elec­tion secur­ity. The bill would prove a crucial first step to safe­guard­ing our elec­tions, and would reas­sure Amer­ic­ans their votes won’t become the object of meddling by Russia or other hostile state actors like North Korea, Iran or China.

Cyber secur­ity experts often note those seek­ing to protect their systems need to have a perfect record. After all, an intruder look­ing to stir trouble only has to get it right once.

(Image: Think­stock)