Given the plentiful media coverage surround the integrity of the 2016 election, including issues of hacking, fake news, and foreign influence, it might be a comfortable assumption that those problems have somehow been addressed as we approach another pivotal US election. Yet, for all the discussion, there have been few concrete steps to protect the integrity of an election that will occur in just a few months. And the intelligence community has suggested that the electoral system is still highly vulnerable, and still a target.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” according to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. “We need to inform the American public that this is real,” he added, speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee in February.
This interference could manifest in several forms, but generally speaking, the vulnerabilities arise from our increased reliance on digital media and technology – and our inability as of yet, to build safeguards into those systems.
In 2016, the highest profile interference involved the hacking of documents from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and their subsequent leaking via WikiLeaks.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has promised that “illegally stolen and hacked materials” will not be “weaponized in any campaigns.” However, their Republican counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, has made no such assurances. They have even ignored written requests from the DCCC for a mutual commitment.
“The antidote to future election hackings is unity, unity of Democrats and Republicans banding together to say we won’t weaponize what others stole,” according to Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell. “If we take away a big stage for hackers to showcase their work, they’ll hack less. The GOP’s refusal to sign this agreement invites more attacks on our democracy. It’s time to unite.”
Often, these efforts focus on campaigns, instead of the government-regulated electoral system itself. It’s up to each campaign to put cybersecurity measures in place, and large numbers of staffers involved increases the likelihood that a phishing attack will turn up sensitive data.
Beyond the hacking of information and fake news dissemination as in 2016, computerized voting machines are also vulnerable to direct hacking efforts. It’s already known that in 2016, Russian hackers went after state voting systems and the companies that run them, leaving experts concerned that we could see more concrete tampering in 2018.
Five states use touchscreen voting systems that leave no paper trail, and another nine use partially digital systems with the same problem.
University of Michigan computer science professor J. Alex Halderman says these are “badly, badly vulnerable. They can be attacked remotely by sophisticated attackers to make them lie about the election outcome.”
On the state and county levels where elections are managed, information technology security is often not equipped to deal with such threats. Often, these roles are contracted out to small companies that may lack the expertise and manpower necessary to counter well-organized, international hacking efforts.
Digital voting systems cut down on costs, and offer a convenient short cut, for elections – so many jurisdictions haven’t stopped to consider the risks.
Officials have also confirmed that Russians successfully hacked voter registration rolls in several states ahead of the 2018 election. While there is no evidence that the rolls were altered, it certainly is an ominous sign for the future.
“2016 was a wake-up call and now it’s incumbent upon states and the Feds to do something about it before our democracy is attacked again,” Jeh Johsnon, who was Department of Homeland Security Secretary at the time, told NBC News. He says that states have since done very little “to actually harden their cybersecurity.”
In the 2016 campaign, fake news and misinformation was a less direct but perhaps equally potent method of election tampering. Social media was a major driver in the spread of misinformation, with 40 percent of visits to fake news sites coming from social media, compared to only 10 percent of visits to the 690 top reputable US news sites. More than one-quarter of adults of voting age are estimated to have visited a fake news site in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Strikingly, the top 20 fake news stories were shared more, and had more engagement, than the top 20 reputable news stories, according to an analysis by Buzzfeed.
What role this played in the election is difficult to quantify. But a recent study from Ohio State University researchers suggests these stories significantly limited turnout for Clinton.
While Facebook has taken some steps to combat the spread of fake news, they have been largely ineffective, according to a review by The Guardian.
The biggest threat of all comes from all of these factors working together to erode faith in the Democratic process. Faith in the system among the American public was already on the decline, and this kind of ambiguous tampering, that can go undetected and leave doubt over elections that persists for years, could destroy whatever confidence was left. Officials with a direct say over elections need to take initiative instead of simply playing defense – if only to restore that faith. And with a pivotal election coming up that will determine so much about the future of the country, they need to take action now rather than later.