The closer we get to the next election, the greater the threat that foes of American democracy will try to alter the results.
That’s a threat we cannot tolerate. Officials on every level from local to federal should redouble efforts to ensure election results reflect the will of the American people. Chicago, Cook County and Illinois should be part of that effort, though they already have better poll security than many jurisdictions.
Scarcely a week goes by when we don’t learn of new vulnerabilities.
- During a test at the July 27-30 DefCon convention in Las Vegas, hackers were able to connect wirelessly within two hours and take control of a touch-screen voting machine that was used in a 2014 Virginia election. Had they done it during an election, they could have altered votes, and it would have been undetectable afterward.
- In early July, state election officials meeting in Indianapolis raised doubts about their ability to put sufficient security measures in place before the 2018 elections to ensure no foreign government could tamper with American voting.
- In June, Bloomberg News reported Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. election system last year was much more widespread than had been disclosed publicly. Voter databases and software systems were broken into in almost twice as many states as had been reported previously, Bloomberg said. That included Illinois, where investigators turned up evidence that intruders had tried to change or delete voter data, perhaps as a test run for the next election. A massive attack on voter registration data could hopelessly snarl polls on Election Day.
- Also in June, Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer science professor, told a Senate Intelligence Committee panel that “our highly computerized election infrastructure is vulnerable to sabotage, and even to cyberattacks that could change votes.”
- The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury to investigate Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
- The Los Angeles Times reported last week a Santa Monica cybersecurity researcher was able to easily download the confidential voter files of every registered voter in Georgia.
The United States has thousands of independent voting jurisdictions, rather than a single nationwide one, and they use different vote-counting systems. That makes it much harder for hackers to sway the entire vote. But it’s not impossible, and doubts are growing about how much protection a decentralized system really provides. Every system has vulnerabilities, especially those that create no paper trail, a security flaw in jurisdictions that serve nearly a quarter of American voters.
Chicago and Cook County, which have separate election commissions, are taking wise precautions. Both have put out requests for proposals for upgraded voting machines. Both run audits after elections to look for signs of interference. Voting machines are secured with tamper-evident seals, and the delivery schedule of machines to polling places is kept as tight as possible. Noah T. Praetz, director of elections for Cook County Clerk David Orr, says the county uses a forensics system to test for intrusions that is unique in the nation.
Also, Illinois, unlike some states, requires every voting machine to create paper ballots that can be hand-counted to verify results.
Unfortunately, Congress and the White House have a more cavalier attitude. In its preliminary budget, the House of Representatives zeroed out funding for the Election Assistance Commission, the only federal agency that is strictly focused on voting security. Fortunately, funding has been restored and expanded.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, refuses to accept the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russians meddled with the 2016 election and has shown no interest in protecting our voting systems from future tampering.
In late July, voting experts from across the country met in Albany, New York, to discuss ways to better protect America’s voting systems. Officials at every level should join in that conversation.
Guarding against ever-more-sophisticated incursions by others nations will be a huge challenge, but it must be met. American democracy is at stake.
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