Herald-Whig View

U.S. must keep voting systems safe

Posted: Apr. 16, 2018 10:00 am

DESPITE the determination by the Department of Homeland Security that Russian hackers tried to infiltrate election systems in 21 states in 2016, including Illinois, many of those systems remain alarmingly vulnerable to cyberattacks with the midterm election less than seven months away.

While there is currently no evidence suggesting any voters were changed in 2016, we know a hostile foreign power gained access to voter registration databases, the very foundation of election integrity.

What should be worrisome to all Americans is that little has been done to address numerous security issues to prevent future breaches, even while federal officials warn that another Russian attempt at interfering with the November election is likely.

To illustrate that point, a February report by the Center for America Progress after a review of election security protocols in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found most of them substandard. The group awarded a grade of C to both Illinois and Iowa, while Missouri received a D.

Moreover, the Washington Post reported that researchers at Princeton University have demonstrated that they can pick the lock on voting machines in seven seconds.

In minutes, the researchers could have replaced the machine's chip with a malicious one, ensuring that voters who voted for candidate A were recorded as having voted for candidate B, the newspaper said.

Those are chilling revelations that could pose serious threats to our democracy if appropriate steps are not taken -- and soon.

Congress has allocated $380 million to upgrade equipment nationwide as part of its effort to prevent a repeat of 2016. Illinois is the only state to publicly acknowledge hackers penetrated its voter registration system, with election officials saying 76,000 of the state's 8 million active voter records were accessed, although none was altered or deleted.

The congressional plan would award Illinois more than $13 million and the state would be required to provide a 5 percent match. Election officials said they would like to focus on replacing voting machinery and hiring cybersecurity experts.

However, the funding is a fraction of the $147 million Illinois received more than a decade ago from the federal Help America Vote Act, which allowed states to overhaul their voting systems, and election officials admit there isn't enough time or money to overhaul the state's voting infrastructure before November.

In Adams County, for example, County Clerk Chuck Venvertloh would like to replace 12-year-old optical scan voting machines that experienced malfunctions in 2016 and again during the primary election in March.

However, the price would be at least $500,000, and many other counties operating with older voting machines will be competing for those limited funds.

Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, told the Chicago Sun-Times that cybersecurity protections go beyond replacing machines. He said states should also protect their voter registration systems and implement better post-election audits to further strengthen public trust.

"The most damaging thing that can be done is undermining people's faith in democracy and potentially undermining their desire to participate and believe in our democratic institutions," Norden said.

That makes it imperative to do what's necessary to fortify our vulnerable voting systems to ensure the sanctity of our elections.