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Want to Address the Greatest Foreign Threat to US Democracy? Fix Voting Machines

The GOP is refusing to take cybersecurity seriously.

Georgia voters at a voting machine during the US presidential election at the Athens-Clarke County Fleet building in Athens, Georgia, on November 8, 2016. (Photo: Tami Chappel / AFP / Getty Images)

Democracy, the very essence of the United States, is under attack, we’re told at least once a week. Not because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker refuses to hold special elections — literally denying all citizens the right to vote — because he’s afraid Republicans will lose. Not because the Pennsylvania GOP is threatening to impeach judges for issuing a fair redistricting map. And not because racist Republican voter ID laws are an extension of the decades-long attack on the Voting Rights Act, including the mass disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people.

All of those things are happening, of course, and have a direct and harmful impact on the right to vote and have one’s vote counted in the United States, especially if you’re likely to vote Democrat.

But to hear it from most media outlets, a Russian disinformation campaign waged through Facebook and Twitter is currently the primary threat to the essence of US democracy.

When it comes to the Russia investigation, it appears that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is doing important work, and that the Trump campaign was staffed by at least one unwitting spy, Carter Page, along with other staffers who consciously broke the law. However, making it seem as if the main threat to democracy is coming from abroad is a mistake. It is an opportunity for seemingly objective journalists to make explicit value judgements — most blatantly, the judgement that Russia is a threat — despite the fact that they generally shy away from making such judgments concerning domestic policy.

That said, there is a significant threat to US democracy from abroad — and domestically — that isn’t getting the mainstream attention it deserves. This is the unconscionable vulnerability of electronic voting systems throughout the country.

On Tuesday, NSA head Admiral Mike Rogers testified before Congress that no one in the Trump administration has directed him to confront Russian meddling operations “where they originate.” Calls to make Putin “pay a price” to the side, we know from leaks by NSA-contractor Reality Winner and interviews with Department of Homeland Security officials that Russian hacking groups successfully penetrated state voting systems in at least 21 states.

As of now, there’s no evidence that any votes were changed, or that any voter rolls were purged. With enough time and incentive, Russian hackers or other outside groups could gain the necessary experience to tamper more directly with voting outcomes in the coming election cycles.

There are clear steps, short of countermeasures directed inside Russia, that can and should be taken to secure the integrity of US votes. The first step, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which has studied the issue extensively, is to update old voting machines. According to a study published this month, “229 officials in 33 states reported they need to replace their voting machines by 2020. Most of these officials do not currently have enough funds for those replacements.” The Brennan Center’s research also found that “more than 500 election officials in 41 states … will use machines and computers in this year’s midterms that are more than a decade old.”

The greatest threats to voting rights are domestic. But that is no reason not to take seriously the capacity for outside groups to disrupt voter rolls, or potentially change vote counts.

These machines are vulnerable to hacking, and, as importantly, create the public impression that vote counts can’t be trusted. Real, legitimate threats of cyber-manipulation of vote totals will only exacerbate doubts about the voting process, and, just as predictably, give rise to all sorts of opportunistic conspiracy theories that will have corrosive effects.

So just how great is the risk of outside intervention from a state actor like Russia, or a non-state hacking group?

“There’s no reason to think elections and election infrastructure are immune from these threats,” Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s democracy program, told Truthout. “So, we must take them seriously, and should make sure that we put in place necessary measures to thwart such threats, and to detect and recover from attacks if they are successful.”

Some in Congress are trying to take action. In February, Congressional Democrats introduced an election security bill, the most comprehensive issued since the 2016 election, without any Republican co-sponsors. The Election Security Act would allocate $1 billion in grants to strengthen voting systems, including adding backup paper ballots, according to Reuters. With no Republican backing, the bill is unlikely to become law anytime soon.

In the Senate, the Intelligence Committee, which is also overseeing an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, is at risk of missing its self-imposed deadline for issuing election security recommendations. Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee, seemed to downplay any sense of urgency, and said “no state’s screaming for money,” according to Politico.

The primary problem with election security, both before and after the election, has been the Republican Party — and that extends beyond Trump’s attempts to downplay the threat. In the months before the election, Jeh Johnson, the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at the time, reached out to governors to offer federal assistance in hardening their security systems. The response from state officials, mostly Republicans, was largely negative, framing Johnson’s offer as a federal takeover of state and local government.

On January 6, 2017, the DHS designated voting systems as “critical infrastructure,” placing them in the same category as nuclear reactors and transportation systems. Since then, DHS leaders have failed to address the ongoing concern, according to Francis X. Taylor, a former top DHS official. “As I consider possible reasons for this federal lack of leadership, it appears the fear of attaching oneself to the politics of the past election — rather than tackling the real challenges of the upcoming one — emerges as the most plausible explanation,” he wrote recently at The Hill.

The greatest threats to voting rights are domestic. But that is no reason not to take seriously the capacity for outside groups to disrupt voter rolls, or potentially change vote counts. And activists working for universal enfranchisement can address both of these issues head on.

“Those seeking to make it more difficult to vote often argue for ‘solutions’ such as eliminating early voting and requiring drivers’ licenses to vote when they can’t point to a demonstrable problem, or even explain how the proposed solutions address the theoretical problem. That’s not true for the threat of hacking,” says Norden, of the Brennan Center.

He says that because it’s clearly evident that hacking is a real issue, it’s possible to take concrete action to confront it.

“We need to have cybersecurity experts conduct threat assessments and help jurisdictions patch vulnerabilities,” Norden says. “We need paper records of all votes and we need to use them to publicly audit results so that everyone can be confident in those results. Those solutions actually address real problems.”

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