On September 10, Microsoft announced that it had detected ongoing cyberattacks coming from Russia, China, and Iran, “targeting people and organizations involved in the upcoming presidential election.” While it noted that the targets identified were “political organizations,” rather than the private companies and election offices responsible for maintaining our election infrastructure, it warned that the attacks were “concerning for the whole ecosystem” and urged election authorities to “harden their operations and prepare for potential attacks.”
The warning from Microsoft is a reminder that our election systems must be resilient against unforeseen problems that are sure to occur this fall. The need for adequate preparation applies to cyberattacks as well as other disruptions, including the coronavirus–related type of breakdowns we saw during the primaries this past spring.
In June of this year, the Brennan Center issued a guide for election officials entitled “Preparing for Cyberattacks and Technical Problems During a Pandemic.” Now, just several weeks before the last day of voting, it is a good time to ask: how prepared are we for a breakdown in our election infrastructure?
The good news is that there has been substantial progress in the last few years, and indeed the last few months, to implement the kind of backup and security features that should allow all voters to cast ballots that will count, even in the event of a successful cyberattack or other unforeseen system failure.
At the same time, there is still more that many jurisdictions can and should be doing to secure our elections over the next few weeks. As difficult as 2020 has been for the administration of elections, we must use the remaining time before the final day of voting to ensure all remaining steps are taken to safeguard a free and fair election.
Below are some of the most important steps states have taken to ensure voters can cast ballots if problems arise. We focus in particular on the 12 states FiveThirtyEight identified as of September 17, 2020, as most likely to be “tipping point” states in the presidential election: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And we conclude the document with more recommendations of what election officials can do between now and Election Day.