This election season, it seems increasingly necessary to expect the unexpected. In August, the FBI determined that hackers infiltrated voter registration systems in two states. Then last week, news broke that hackers targeted databases in more than 20 states. After hackers penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s computer network this summer, these cyberattacks come amid suspicions that foreign agents are trying to undermine the presidential election next month.
As the Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden emphasized in a recent congressional testimony, any attempt to interfere with our democratic process must be treated with extreme seriousness. Our democracy depends on the public’s confidence that votes are accurately counted. That’s why it’s important to set the record straight. The systems that guard the integrity of our elections, while imperfect, are fundamentally sound. Where there are vulnerabilities, election officials are working to mitigate the risks.
First, it’s critical to distinguish between voter registration databases and the machines on which voters will cast their ballots on Election Day. There have been no confirmed attacks on voting machines, which should never be connected to the internet. For obvious reasons, this makes it extremely difficult for a hacker from abroad to access them remotely.
Here’s what we know about the security of our voting systems. As both the FBI director and Homeland Security secretary have made clear, we have the capacity to detect intruders in voter registration databases. In a recent statement, Secretary Jeh Johnson explained that in the states where hackers were detected, there is no evidence data was manipulated. The federal government is now working with 21 states to provide cybersecurity assistance ahead of the election.
The highly decentralized nature of our election infrastructure offers a further protection. There are over 10,000 election jurisdictions in the United States. This means in a federal election, there are essentially more than 10,000 separate elections being run, with different voting machines, ballots, rules, and security measures. One clear benefit of this system is that it is not possible to attack the nation’s voting machines in one location, as might be possible with a statewide voter registration database or campaign email server.
Still, there’s more we can do enhance the security of our elections. In the immediate term, election officials can take important steps: Creating paper back-ups of voter rolls and encouraging voters to check their registration online for erroneous information before Election Day, for example, can help ensure that all eligible voters can cast their ballots on Election Day.
On voting machine security, the good news is at least 80 percent of registered voters will vote on a paper ballot, or on an electronic machine that produces a paper trail. This should provide a deterrent to an attack, and offer voters confidence that their votes will be accurately counted. A public post-election audit of the voting machines can be used to confirm that the electronic record reported by the machine is correct. Election officials should also have contingency procedures in place if voting machines malfunction.
It’s true that problems at the polls are an unfortunate reality of American elections. In 2012, researchers estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 eligible voters did not vote because of long lines. And as a recent Brennan Center study showed, 42 states will use voting machines in November that are perilously close to the end of their projected lifespan.
In the long term, we can and must do better by investing in our nation’s election technology infrastructure. We need to upgrade the security systems protecting our voter registration databases, and ensure that sensitive information, like social security numbers, is not included on the rolls. We also must replace the oldest voting machines and equipment that over time will become less reliable and secure. A single voter who is denied the opportunity to cast a ballot tarnishes our democracy.
But our democracy also depends on the public’s confidence that our elections are fair and free. In recent weeks, the critical differences between what is probable, possible, and conceivable (but highly unlikely) has been lost among fears of widespread hacking and fraud swaying the outcome of the election. Our democracy is the strongest in the world. It’s important that voters keep this in mind.