Opinion

Angus King: Voting equipment could see ‘sophisticated cyberattacks’ from Russia

If the Russians or anyone else want to tamper with the results of an election, they’re not going to get far in Maine.

Since the state relies on paper ballots for nearly all of its voting, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Monday, Mainers should feel confident that nobody can undercut the will of the people at the ballot box.

But given the Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election, U.S. Sen. Angus King wants to make sure that all of America’s voting machines are secure, something that may not be true in every state today.

The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told a Senate panel this week that “our election apparatus should be considered critical infrastructure” and ought to have protections built in to ensure foreign powers can’t tamper with the results.

“As a citizen, I’d be concerned with doing all we can to secure that apparatus,” Clapper said.

King told Senate colleagues recently that “voting equipment will certainly be subject to sophisticated cyberattacks.”

The Maine independent told leaders of an appropriations subcommittee that “to fail to cybersecure this foundation stone of our representative democracy will undermine our own people’s faith in the integrity of our political system as well as to diminish the example we set for the nations of the world.”

King wants Congress to allocate $160 million to help state and local governments buy voting machines that can be audited to make sure the tallies reported are accurate.

About one in five votes cast last year in the U.S. were cast on machines that have no way to review the electronic tallies they provide because there are no paper ballot backups. Dunlap said some of them use touch screen machines that don’t provide even a paper backup.

Maine uses paper ballots that are typically fed into a counting machine, providing a way to audit its results, a system Dunlap said leaves no room for anyone to monkey with results.

Government officials say that despite reports of attempted hacking of voting machines and voter lists in many states, there’s no evidence that Russia or anyone changed votes directly.

Former FBI Director James Comey said last fall that U.S. elections are “very, very hard for someone to hack into” because they’re “clunky and dispersed” rather than under any sort of centralized control.

Still, both he and many other leaders, including homeland security experts who designated the machinery and mechanics of voting a national security issue this year, are expressing growing concern about what could happen.

Given that Russian operatives are happy with the results they got from their interference in the U.S. election, Clapper said, the problem is only going to grow more serious.

“I think they’re coming back,” said former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

She said the country has “to do a whole lot more, both to harden our election systems, our state election systems,” and “to ensure that folks out there know when they’re looking at news feeds, that it may not be real news that they’re reading.”

Clapper said he believes the Russians “are now emboldened to continue such activities in the future both here and around the world, and to do so even more intensely.”

“If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it. I hope the American people recognize the severity of this threat and that we collectively counter it before it further erodes the fabric of our democracy,” Clapper said.

King, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that’s looking into Russia’s interference with last year’s election, said most  computer security experts agree that “conventional computer security measures” won’t be enough to cope with the threat to the integrity of the voting process.

King told leaders of the appropriations subcommittee that deals with homeland security that “in the emerging age of cyberwar, election equipment is a very attractive target. Rational analysis concludes that our voting equipment will certainly be subject to sophisticated cyberattacks that are likely to change election outcomes without detection.”

“Organizations with great in-house expertise and large security budgets are routinely penetrated,” he said, pointing to “regular reports of breaches or attempted breaches at the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Personnel Management, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Google, Yahoo, Target, health insurance companies, banks and all sorts of state and local governments.”

King said that “local election offices, many of which have only part-time staff, have vastly less computer security expertise and funding with which to try to defend their systems.”

The senator warned that as it is, successful tampering could go unnoticed.

“After every controversial election, charges of undetected tampering will grow until there is no longer faith in our elections,” King said.

He said that internet voting, which is happening in different ways in more than 30 states, “is even more vulnerable than electronic polling place voting.”

“People in my world simply do not trust this,” Dunlap said.

Yates said government needs to take more steps to block election interference.

“I think that we have to do more to deter the Russians, and it wouldn’t hurt to prosecute a few folks, but I don’t think we should kid ourselves that we’ll be able to prosecute our way out of this problem,” she said.James C

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