As if this election year didn’t have enough drama, the FBI is now urging states to take new steps to enhance the security of their computer systems ahead of the November election. This week, the agency said it had been monitoring Russian hackers who recently breached a voter registration system in Illinois and attempted unsuccessfully to do the same in Arizona.
Now, federal law enforcement officials are urging states to take new security measures to ensure the integrity of their voting systems. The Obama Administration is voicing its concern, considering making the U.S. election administration system “critical infrastructure,” which would mean additional oversight and security.
“We’re vigilant of the threats that exist out there,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “We need to be aware of the fact that our adversaries, whether they’re criminal or state organized, that they’re always evolving.”
This isn’t the first we’ve heard of hacking in the 2016 race. Earlier this summer, Russian hackers were suspected of accessing the Democratic National Committee’s email servers, exposing a questionable relationship between DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Why would Russia want to meddle in our election? One expert in Moscow told us during the DNC in July that Russian President Vladimir Putin would much rather see a Donald Trump presidency than a Clinton one.
But regardless of what nefarious foreign powers may think, there are security concerns surrounding our election infrastructure that are worth a closer look. Princeton University computer scientist Dr. Andrew Appel says electronic voting machines, soon to be used by an estimated 42 million Americans in more than a dozen states, are perhaps the biggest vulnerability. He was able to hack into one in under 7 minutes.
“When you have an electronic voting machine with no paper ballot, then you’re completely relying on the software in the voting machine to tell you who won,” Dr. Appel said. “And software is easily replaced in a computer, so somebody could replace it with fraudulent software that lies.”
It rarely makes the national news, but there have been problems with voting machines in past U.S. elections. In Fairfield Township, New Jersey, there were only 44 voters in a local race for 2 seats on the Democratic Committee. Cyntia and Ernest Zirkle, a married couple, lost by more than 20 votes each. But the Zirkles personally knew 33 of the 44 voters who all swore they voted for them. For some reason, the machines reversed the votes, giving the Zirkles’ votes to their opponent and vice versa. The Zirkles suspect some foul play was behind the mishap, though the end result of their legal challenge was that a judge ordered a new election, which they subsequently won.
“When you have candidates with enormous amounts of money at their disposal,” Cynthia Zirkle said, “elections can be bought at the local level in enough places that it will make a difference.”
States are increasingly moving away from paperless systems to optical scanners that digitize paper ballots, providing elections officials with a non-digital back-up. But battleground states like Pennsylvania still have some of their largest counties exclusively using electronic, paperless machines. In Montgomery, Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, the Vice Chair of the Board of Commissioners, is well aware of Dr. Appel’s hacking success but says she still feels confident in their security procedures.
“In our case there would be some evidence of tampering that the judge of election would notice the next day,” Arkoosh said. “I think it’d be great if voters could walk out with a piece of paper that said ‘your votes were recorded for these candidates.’”
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