Democracy is under attack in the United States.
A recent US Senate Intelligence Committee report found that it’s likely all 50 states were targeted by the Russian government in 2016 as part of that country’s efforts to influence our elections.
While there’s no direct evidence that votes or election data were changed, the implications are staggering.
Last summer, during a hacker exercise for kids, an 11-year-old was able to hack into a replica of Florida’s state election website in about 10 minutes.
Another 11-year-old was also able to hack the site in about 15 minutes. Both kids were able to change critical information, including vote counts.
In Maine, as Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap pointed out to the Bangor Daily News last week, Maine elections are pretty secure. We use paper ballots, which can’t be changed by a computer. The ballots are counted at the local level and a paper trail is created.
Our ballot access laws, Dunlap said, also mean that efforts to erase voters from centralized databases could be overcome. Voters could simply register on Election Day and continue to cast their ballot.
Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn described to the BDN some of the efforts by Russian agents as so-called “phishing” to try to acquire passwords and other secure information from unwitting targets.
“They’re just looking for the suckers. Most of it is just trying to make sure we’re not one of the suckers,” Flynn said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to just be vigilant.”
While Maine’s analog voting systems might keep the majority of our data safe, the same can’t be said for other states and other information platforms.
Every day, it seems, there’s a new story about private information being compromised. The most recent example comes from the credit card company Capital One, which reports that the information of 100 million people was compromised.
The list of hacked companies is large and includes some of the institutions we trust to protect our data, such as Equifax, the credit rating agency that had consumer information from 147 million people compromised. (If you were affected by the data breach, you should file a claim with the Federal Trade Commission.)
While it might be nearly impossible to change paper ballots, our electronic data and information systems are clearly at risk and sophisticated, nation-state actors are determined to use those vulnerabilities to attack our democracy.
I trust that Dunlap, Flynn and the rest of the dedicated staff at the Office of the Secretary of State take serious voting security, but our vulnerability goes well beyond ballot integrity.
In politics, the quickest way to lose an election is to re-fight the last campaign. In 2016, Russia dedicated itself to the election of now President Donald Trump. But the goal next time could be very different.
Instead of an attack on voter registration data or even actual vote totals, imagine the chaos created if the Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald or other news sources were hacked and conflicting vote totals were posted. Or if the AP wire was breached and the election was incorrectly called for the wrong candidate.
If chaos is the goal, the system has a lot more weaknesses than the risk of changes to the real vote count.
We have become accustomed to knowing the results of an election in real time. During Maine’s first elections using ranked-choice voting there was all kinds of handwringing about a few days delay in knowing the outcome, though it didn’t matter at all to the formation of government.
An orchestrated disinformation campaign that created chaos on Election Night and in the days right after the election could eventually be sorted out, but not before the legitimacy of the election – and our democracy itself – was damaged.
I, for one, can easily imagine Trump rejecting election results that were in dispute.
Deputy Secretary of State Flynn was right. The Russians were looking for suckers. But the targets aren’t just election officials. We’re all targets. And the tools that can be used against us are our eagerness, impatience and willingness to ignore evidence to the contrary to get the results we’re hoping for.