But it wouldn’t even take a full-fledged cyberattack on an electronic voting system to throw a wrench in a national election. Even the specter of the possibility that the American electoral system is anything but trustworthy provides ammunition to skeptics to call foul if an election doesn’t go their way.
That’s the argument that Dan Wallach, a computer-science professor at Rice University, put forward in an essay earlier this month titled “Election Security as a National Security Issue.” Nicholas Weaver, a professor and security researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, expanded on Wallach’s thesis in Lawfare this month. “Voting systems need to convince rational losers that they lost fairly,” Weaver wrote. “In order to do that, it is critical to both limit fraud and have the result be easily explained.”
Paper ballots are harder to fudge than votes stored in bits and bytes: A manual recount can help assuage fears of a rigged election. Even voting machines that spit out a voters’ choices on a piece of paper before submitting them are verifiable. But machines that record votes directly without providing a physical receipt aren’t terribly easy to audit if accusations of fraud begin to fly.
The more that voters’ faith in electronic systems is shaken before November, the higher the likelihood that voters might question the outcome of an election that includes electronic ballots. Donald Trump has already made repeated predictions that the general election will be “rigged,” even going so far as to recruit volunteer “Trump Election Observers” to monitor polls. And election-related security issues may already be on voters’ minds after two email hacks this summer, one that targeted the Democratic National Committee, and another that targeted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Now, it appears that foreign hackers recently made their way into two state voter databases. In response, the FBI quietly sent out an alert earlier this month warning officials to improve the security of their election technology, Yahoo News reported Monday, the same week that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson offered state officials federal help in shoring up election-related cyberdefenses.
The states aren’t identified in the FBI alert, but Yahoo News reports that they’re likely Arizona and Illinois, two states that struggled with voting security earlier this summer. In Illinois, hackers appear to have made off with the voter-registration information of about as many as 200,000 voters; in Arizona, attackers don’t appear to have stolen any data.
Spying on voter-registration data isn’t the same thing as manipulating election results, of course. Most of the information in voter rolls is publicly available, even if cumbersome to assemble, or is available from data brokers for a cost. But the attacks in Arizona and Illinois suggest that foreign hackers are targeting election data—and raise the prospect that they may also try to manipulate votes come November.