While there are many things we still don’t know, one thing we have learned about Russia’s attempts to hack the 2016 election is that is was far more widespread than previously thought.
According to a recent report from Bloomberg, hackers broke into the election systems in 39 states, including Illinois. They may not have succeeded in breaching the voting machines themselves or even in substantially disrupting the voter registration rolls. But next time, they could.
The details that have emerged so far about the Russian effort underscore how difficult our election system is to secure. Hackers reportedly targeted employees of voting system vendors by sending them fraudulent emails designed to get them to provide their passwords. They used the information they gained through those efforts to target election officials with deceptively realistic fake communications.
Adopting balloting systems with voter-verified paper trails is a good first step, though one that hasn’t been universally adopted. About 20 percent of voters still use machines that leave no paper trail.
When reports of Russian hacking efforts first surfaced last summer, New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice issued a report on vulnerabilities of our voting systems, noting that voting machines across the country were outdated, leaving them prone to errors, if not hacking, and that lax procedures left many state or local voter registration systems at risk.
The former problem can be solved through greater federal investment in supporting voting machine hardware purchases at the state and local levels. It’s a good thing that we have variation in the types and manufacturers of our voting machines because it makes wide-scale manipulation more difficult. But we do need more uniformity in their age and quality.
As for registration databases, more needs to be done to ensure that local and state officials follow some basic precautions, for example making frequent paper back-ups of the rolls and employing auditing techniques to flag unusual activity.
This cannot become a partisan question. We all have a stake in ensuring that our voting system remains reliable and trusted, and we need Republicans and Democrats alike to make it a top priority immediately. The 2018 congressional elections are only 17 months away.