12 Cyber Threats That Could Wreak Havoc on the Election

One simple way that the CISA is recommending election officials minimize the threat of ransomware is to embrace a particularly old-fashioned technology: Print out voter rolls and poll books.

2. Advance Voter Data Manipulation: One clear way to throw sand in the gears of the election would be to access and change voter registration databases in advance—for instance changing names, street addresses, or zip codes in ways that would cause confusion at polling places. “A pre-election undetected attack could tamper with voter lists, creating huge confusion and delays, disenfranchisement, and at large enough scale could compromise the validity of the election,” John Sebes, the chief technology officer of the election-technology-focused OSET Institute warned last year.

Russian hackers are known to have penetrated the voter systems of at least two Florida counties in 2016, though they do not appear to have changed anything. At least one other jurisdiction, Riverside, California, saw unknown hackers apparently tamper with voter party affiliation data in 2016, leading to confusion at the polls and voters being turned away. The episode remains unconfirmed publicly by federal or state officials—only the county district attorney has spoken about it openly—and the hackers’ intent is unclear, since the data tampering apparently included both Republican and Democratic voters. “I’m very concerned,” Riverside County district attorney Mike Hestrin told NBC earlier this month. “I think that our current system has numerous vulnerabilities.”

Problems with voter registration data would almost certainly lead to eligible voters being given so-called “provisional ballots,” which allow them to cast a vote while the underlying eligibility is double-checked. Such ballots, a standard part of all elections, introduce their own complexity, particularly if they end up needing to be used in large numbers, since they would delay the final count and could introduce opportunities for court challenges of individual ballots. One strength of the US system here is just how decentralized these voter rolls actually are; hackers might be able to hit a single jurisdiction or even a handful, but it’s not like there’s a single national voter database that could muck up voting for everyone.

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3. Day-of-Vote Interruption: The Covid-19 pandemic will mean that there are fewer polling places open in many parts of the country, all of which rely on a wide assortment of voting technologies. That increases the chances that technical gremlins could freeze up systems, slow down lines, and discourage voters from participating. Already this year, citizens in Georgia faced lines on the state’s first day of early voting that stretched to 10 hours or more after bandwidth challenges slowed the pace of its check-in system to as few as 10 voters an hour. “The system would kick us out, or make us log back in, or was slow responding — you didn’t know what was going to happen really,” one county election director told The Washington Post. It took until Wednesday to implement technical fixes that got the system back up to speed.

Security journalist Kim Zetter has called those voter check-in devices, known as “electronic pollbooks,” the “security hole everyone ignores.” They adhere to no uniform standards or federal certifications, and a leaked NSA document showed that Russia targeted at least one e-pollbook manufacturer as part of its 2016 attack.

While the pollbooks can’t be used to alter someone’s vote, Georgia shows how problems with the devices’ connectivity could discourage voters from participating in the first place. Moreover, just as with problems introduced into the underlying voter data, check-in challenges could lead to an increase in provisional ballots, slowing the final vote count and increasing the number of votes that could be challenged in court or a recount.

4. Actual Vote Manipulation: In 2016, as it watched Russian intelligence probe US voting networks, the US government communicated what it saw as a clear “red line”: The US would not stand for any attempt by Russia to change actual vote totals in the election. Here again, the decentralized nature and diversity of America’s voting systems serves as a protection. Given how many different technologies one would have to master and how many different jurisdictions would have to be targeted, it would be enormously hard to affect enough votes to change the outcome of the election.

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