- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2018

Just a day before an estimated 100 million voters across the country cast ballots in the midterm elections, experts remain tense and concerned about the risk of foreign interference, vote hacking and fraud, in what they say is shaping up as a test of historic proportions for the integrity of America’s electoral systems.

Tuesday’s vote is seen as being critical to the remainder of President Trump’s time in office, and a measure of what U.S. officials have learned since the widespread problems of two years ago.

It is also the first major election since the Kremlin in 2016 engaged in what Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity official Jeanette Manfra told Congress was “a brazen, multifaceted influence campaign aimed at undermining public faith in our democratic process, generally and our election specifically.”

Unfolding amid the return of Cold War-style tensions with Russia and a bitterly divided political landscape, the latest polls show a broad popular concern that the federal government has not done nearly enough to fix things.

But while voter faith in Washington is low, on a more local level, election officials and voting security experts express confidence that efforts to seal vulnerabilities have made headway.

“Every state has improved their security since 2016,” said Maurice Turner, a senior technologist at the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.

Trust in local efforts, according to Mr. Turner, is echoed by leading voting advocates who argue that much of the responsibility for smooth elections rests on the shoulders of ordinary voters.

“Voters needed to be vigilant,” Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said late last week during a conference call with state leaders from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Ms. Hobert Flynn added that while early voting across America has thus far been “fairly smooth, ” voters who see problems — either individually or with the larger system — should immediately alert their local or state election officials.

In one sign of continuing official concern, the Homeland Security Department will be operating an election security “war room” in Washington during Tuesday’s vote.

Led by former Election Assistance Commission member Matt Masterson, the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center was praised by President Trump last week, who said his administration has made great efforts to assure the midterms will proceed smoothly with “hopefully, no meddling, no tampering, no nothing.”

Washington vs. the states

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security took the controversial step of designating elections systems as part of the country’s critical infrastructure. The move sparked vigorous debate over how far the federal government should regulate national elections.

Democrats generally argued it was a national security issue to protect voting integrity, while leading Republicans, including Trump Administration officials, said that approach overstepped federal authority and possibly violated the rights of the states to set up their own election systems.

But concern mounted throughout 2017 and 2018 as more details of Kremlin meddling efforts trickled out, including revelations about a massive social media propaganda push to sow discord around inflammatory social issues. Russian agents tried to hack election systems in at least 21 states, U.S. officials said.

During the course of the two-year legislative session, Congress ultimately appropriated $380 million to the Election Assistance Commission to give to states to enhance election security.

But the GOP-dominated Congress wound up passing no comprehensive election security legislation, even stalling in legislative committee what appeared to be the most bipartisan proposal introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat and Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican.

That measure, the Elections Security Act, would have required states to use back-up paper ballots in the case of voting irregularities. It also sought to establish clear lines of communication between DHS, state election officials and voting machine vendors.

Many expressed anger at the inaction on Capitol Hill.

“The message it sends to elections officials is that there isn’t a sense of urgency or priority to get this done,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said late last summer.

But figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures show that while Washington stumbled, at least eight states this year passed election cybersecurity-related laws.

After this year’s National Association of Secretaries of State annual conference, alliance President Jim Condos recalled, about 75 percent of the discussions during breakout sessions were focused on election cybersecurity, compared to 2016 when there was almost no consideration of the issue.

“Cybersecurity is now our focus,” said Mr. Condos, who is also the Vermont secretary of state. “It’s what keeps many of us as secretaries of states and local officials up at night.”

What problems remain?

As states and federal officials have scrambled to identify and address the 2016 concerns, a major worry continues to be the age of the nation’s voting machine infrastructure.

The New York University Law School Brennan Center for Justice found that 41 states rely upon election equipment that is more than a decade old, susceptible to hacks, and often lacking a paper trail to verify disputed votes.

And while no hacks are known to have changed any votes in 2016, hackers remain agents of chaos, experts say.

A highly touted report from the DEF CON cybersecurity convention last summer in Las Vegas warned that voting machines posed a “serious risk” to national security. New analysis released last week found that California is the most at-risk state for political hacking, with New York, Texas, Florida and Nevada rounding out the top five.

The projections from HighSpeedInternet.com were calculated by juxtaposing 2017 FBI data on attacks by political hackers, also known as “hacktivists,” against each state’s number of legislators.

The study re-enforced what America’s leading national security officials, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, have repeated testified to Congress: States must remain on high alert.

Public fears

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a national survey that found two-thirds of Americans believe Russia or another foreign government will try to influence Tuesday’s vote.

Pew researchers found that overall there is not much faith that the federal government “is making serious efforts to protect election systems” from hacking and other technological threats, with only 13 percent “very confident” efforts are underway and 42 percent “somewhat confident.”

But despite the concerns, Americans feel positive about voting overall, with 91 percent saying voting in elections is “important,” while 68 percent said that “voting gives people like me some say about how government runs things.”

A strong majority of Americans said they had confidence in their local officials. Some 89 percent said they are confident that poll workers in their community do a good job, and majorities said the same about local and state election officials.

“The biggest key for voters it to know what their rights are,” Mr. Turner said.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to deny it ever interfered in any American election, especially the 2016 vote.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide