As Americans prepare to go to the polls for the 2018 midterm elections, a new report from the National Academy of Sciences highlights the threat of disruption from cyberattacks on electoral infrastructure across the country.
The report, supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, emphasizes the need for coordinated preparedness at the federal, state, and local levels. It also recommends that paper ballots be used at voting polls so that voters can “confirm and review” their selections before leaving their polling station. Such measures are critical to preventing cyber intrusions or the disruption of the electoral process, according to the report. The report also cited recommendations for Congress to take to ensure adequate funding.
“This is a critical time for our country,” said Committee on the Future of Voting co-chair and Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. “As a nation, we need to take collective action to strengthen our voting systems and safeguard our democracy.”
Carnegie Corporation has long funded initiatives that seek to promote and enhance voter engagement. In 2001 the Corporation funded a joint research project by the California Institute of Technology and MIT aimed at developing new voting technologies that would lead to a secure and uniform voting system throughout the United States. Since that time the Caltech/MIT Voting Tech Project (VTP) has been working to prevent a recurrence of the problems that led to the disputed 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Since its establishment, members of the VTP have studied all aspects of the election process, both in the United States and abroad. The group was tasked with researching ways in which voting in the United States can be more uniform and comprehensive. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed by Congress in 2002, was largely an outgrowth of this work.
The 2016 presidential election revealed further vulnerability of election infrastructure to interference by foreign governments and non-state entities. While the extent of the intrusion is not known, it made clear the vulnerabilities of our electoral system to cyber-attacks.
“It’s a different set of problems now than we had say, 15 years ago,” MIT’s Charles Stewart said in a conversation with Carnegie Corporation of New York earlier this year and before the release of the report, noting the shift from hanging chads to the computer systems associated with elections.
On the positive side, Stewart said, the decentralized nature of America’s voting system – there are more than 7,000 precincts nationwide, with varying kinds of ballots – make it harder to hack. “You might be able to do it retail, but if you just wanted to flip votes, that would be a very hard thing to do wholesale,” he said.