In the last U.S. presidential election, Russian hackers penetrated Illinois’s voter-registration database, viewing voters’ addresses and parts of their social security numbers. Election results were not affected, but the attack put intruders in the position to alter voter data, according to a report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The incursion was part of hacking attempts against all 50 states, and intruders will try even more vigorously in 2020, yet experts say Congress is doing little to improve defenses. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University says states will need just more than $2.1 billion to upgrade election computer systems, yet last month the Senate approved only a fraction of that amount: $250 million.
One reason for the inadequate response is that elected representatives and their staffs are not tech savvy enough to understand the scope of the problems, says Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center and co-author of the cost analysis. His sentiments are echoed by other cybersecurity specialists. “I just didn’t have the tools,” recalls Meg King, director of the Digital Futures Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who worked on a cyberdefense bill a decade ago as a senior staff member on a House homeland security subcommittee. She now describes that bill as “too little, too late.” Today her think tank has begun to offer staffers short courses in cybersecurity issues, but security researchers worry that step will not be enough.
While substantially changing the outcome of an election by hacking into voting machines is extremely unlikely because those machines and the ballot counting process are very decentralized, altering voter rolls could block people from voting. If the system is even slightly exploited, says David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, it could trigger public distrust in elections. “I think the greatest challenge that we do have is to make sure that we maintain the integrity of our election system,” said Joseph Maguire, the U.S. acting director of national intelligence, during recent congressional testimony.