The midterms are in peril, election security experts warn, because little has been done to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states targeted by Russian hackers, “according to interviews with nearly two dozen national security and state officials and election technology specialists,” The New York Times reported on Friday.
If you thought the government was looking into the Russian hacking of our election, think again.
On June 5th, a top secret NSA document obtained by The Intercept revealed that Russian hacking into the U.S. 2016 election “may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood.”
While assurances were given that the Russians didn’t alter vote tallies, there are many other ways to hack an election. One way would be to suppress the vote in Democratic pockets and cities. Hacking into voter rolls and e-poll books would allow the hackers to keep people from voting by making it impossible to verify them. This would also create long lines, which further discourages turnout.
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Many counties reported issues with e-poll books. The Times detailed e-poll book problems in large cities in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and some in Arizona, which were all attributed to software glitches.
The Times noted that while the hacking of the electoral systems was “more extensive than previously disclosed,” the “assaults on the vast back-end election apparatus — voter-registration operations, state and local election databases, e-poll books and other equipment — have received far less attention than other aspects of the Russian interference…”
“Apart from the Russian influence campaign intended to undermine Mrs. Clinton and other Democratic officials, the impact of the quieter Russian hacking efforts at the state and county level has not been widely studied. Federal officials have been so tight-lipped that not even many election officials in the 21 states the hackers assaulted know whether their systems were compromised, in part because they have not been granted security clearances to examine the classified evidence,” Nicole Perlroth, Michael Wines and Matthew Rosenberg reported.
There are plenty of reasons the government might want to tamp down concerns about election accuracy; after all, if the Russians hacked our election, it means our election was not legitimate and that means our democracy is in peril. Hysteria could easily ensue if people understood how deeply threatened the nation is.
But perhaps this lack of hysteria is actually more damaging. Why was the media obsessed with Clinton’s emails and the DNC emails, but not with the fact that voter rolls were hacked and e-poll books and other equipment were possibly interfered with.
“It felt like tampering, or some kind of cyberattack,” nonpartisan election monitoring group troubleshooter Susan Greenhalgh told The New York Times about the voting troubles in Durham.
This is not a conspiracy. “Beyond VR Systems, hackers breached at least two other providers of critical election services well ahead of the 2016 voting, said current and former intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information is classified. The officials would not disclose the names of the companies.”
Noting that Intelligence officials told the public in January that the bottom line vote tallies had not been altered, The Times report continues, “Government officials said that they intentionally did not address the security of the back-end election systems, whose disruption could prevent voters from even casting ballots.”
This isn’t being addressed now, either, so the midterms are in peril. The Times observed that the states, which control elections, have fewer resources and don’t like the feds to interfere in their process and intelligence agencies are limited when it comes to domestic issues, so the forensic examination needed is simply not happening.
Also, “Current congressional inquiries and the special counsel’s Russia investigation have not focused on the matter.”
But that probably doesn’t surprise you, as Republicans control Congress and they benefited from the Russian interference in the 2016 election. If at times you are wondering why Republicans don’t seem concerned with their President’s plunging poll numbers or the deep disapproval of their health care plan, you might be on to something.
Election security experts are concerned about the midterms, warning of “what could come, perhaps as soon as next year’s midterm elections, if the existing mix of outdated voting equipment, haphazard election-verification procedures and array of outside vendors is not improved to build an effective defense against Russian or other hackers.”
This wide-open, glaring vulnerability striking dead center at the core of one of the major freedoms the United States stands for – the idea of accessible, democratic elections – is not being addressed.
They don’t want you to be hysterical, but you might have good reason to be.
Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, argued for more scrutiny of suspicious incidents. “We must harden our cyber defenses, and thoroughly educate the American public about the danger posed” by attacks,” he said in an email. “In other words: we are not making our elections any safer by withholding information about the scope and scale of the threat.”
Ms. Greenhalgh will be watching closely. “What people focus on is, ‘Did someone mess with the vote totals?’” she said. “What they don’t realize is that messing with the e-poll books to keep people from voting is just as effective.’”
The calls started flooding in from hundreds of irate North Carolina voters just after 7 a.m. on Election Day last November.
Dozens were told they were ineligible to vote and were turned away at the polls, even when they displayed current registration cards. Others were sent from one polling place to another, only to be rejected. Scores of voters were incorrectly told they had cast ballots days earlier. In one precinct, voting halted for two hours.
Susan Greenhalgh, a troubleshooter at a nonpartisan election monitoring group, was alarmed. Most of the complaints came from Durham, a blue-leaning county in a swing state. The problems involved electronic poll books — tablets and laptops, loaded with check-in software, that have increasingly replaced the thick binders of paper used to verify voters’ identities and registration status. She knew that the company that provided Durham’s software, VR Systems, had been penetrated by Russian hackers months before.
“It felt like tampering, or some kind of cyberattack,” Susan Greenhalgh, a troubleshooter at a nonpartisan election monitoring groupsaid about the voting troubles in Durham.
There are plenty of other reasons for such breakdowns — local officials blamed human error and software malfunctions — and no clear-cut evidence of digital sabotage has emerged, much less a Russian role in it. Despite the disruptions, a record number of votes were cast in Durham, following a pattern there of overwhelming support for Democratic presidential candidates, this time Hillary Clinton.
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Sarah is two-time Telly award winning video producer and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.
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