Four separate investigations by Congress and Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, already are exploring Russia's meddling into America's 2016 election. But a new report on the vulnerability of America's voting apparatus is a wake-up call for Americans of all political stripes. Florida is better off than many states, but there is a broad need to improve voting machines, technology, training and security to protect the elections process and bolster public faith in the outcomes.
The report, released in June, is the latest critical look at the nation's electoral process by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. It highlights two areas vulnerable to attack: voting machines and the voter registration rolls. In many cases, these rely on older designs and technology, making them harder to secure with updated software and more vulnerable to being hacked. Forty-two percent of states use voting machines that were purchased more than a decade ago, the report found, putting the systems "perilously" close to the end of their expected life-spans. Aging machines are more prone to crashing, which can lead to long lines at the polls, and they rely on security patches no longer supported by software makers. Those weaknesses are significant, because hackers only need to create chaos in one state or city for suspicion of the voting system to go viral nationwide.
The authors make three key recommendations. Congress and the states need to help county elections officials upgrade their equipment. Fourteen states (not Florida) still use paperless voting machines, the report found, and nearly half use voter registration databases that were initially created more than a decade ago. Congress could provide grants to enable county elections offices, which largely administer elections, to upgrade their technology. More states could require postelection audits; today, only 26 (including Florida) do. And state and county governments could require more routine assessments of emerging cyber security threats. Funding shortages and complacency have kept many states from hiring the technical expertise to stay ahead of the game.
Government agencies at all levels have taken important steps in the past decade to make their voting systems more secure. At least 80 percent of voters make their selection on a paper ballot or on a machine that produces a paper trail. Florida and other states have upgraded their voter registration systems, scanned more rigorously for cyber attacks and built walls to protect their computer systems. Still, unlike Florida, most jurisdictions don't conduct robust postelection audits comparing paper records to software totals, the Brennan report found. That's a serious gap in the system.
The nation has some 8,000 jurisdictions, the study noted, with voters casting their ballots at about 100,000 polling places. That level of decentralization is protection itself, for it makes it practically impossible to hijack the nation's elections system at a single point. Still, as former CIA director James Woolsey noted in a forward to the report, hackers are increasingly sophisticated, and U.S. intelligence expects that Russia and other players will be back in 2018 and in later election cycles to inflict more damage on the nation's voting systems. This is a universal threat to all voters and political parties that cannot be lost in the current furor over Russia.