WASHINGTON — Hoping to counter waves of Russian Twitter bots, fake social media accounts, and hacking attacks aimed at undermining American democracy, state election officials around the country are seizing on an old-school strategy: paper ballots.
In Virginia, election officials have gone back to a paper ballot system, as a way to prevent any foreign interference. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe this month ordered county officials to ensure new election equipment produces a paper record. Georgia lawmakers are considering legislation to replace a touch-screen voting system with paper.
Top election officials around the country are growing increasingly alarmed about this fall’s midterm elections, with a drumbeat of dire warning signs that Russia is determined to influence them. And many are concerned that President Trump has not focused on the potential for more attacks on America’s election system like the one Russia launched in 2016.
With little leadership from the White House or Congress, they are acting locally, trying to outwit potential hackers by upgrading equipment and enhancing the cybersecurity of systems that contain sensitive voter registration rolls. Secretaries of state and other elections officials around the country in recent months also began applying for security clearances so that federal officials can start briefing them on classified information — and potential threats to election integrity.
Election officials are also turning away from fully electronic systems they fear can be hacked. They see paper as reassuring for voters: Physical ballots can be counted again if anything untoward happens to computerized tabulating systems.
About 30 states allow some form of electronic voting, most for overseas absentee voters. A handful prohibit full electronic voting, including Massachusetts, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“I’ve always been in favor of paper ballots, even when it was fashionable to use electronic systems,” said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin. “You take the card, you mark your choices, you take it to the box. You ensure it’s counted. All the cards are retained. If there’s a question you can go in and count the cards.”
Over the past several weeks, the nation’s top intelligence officials have said that Russians are already at work trying to disrupt the midterm elections, building on their efforts in 2016. In some cases, they are attempting to spread misinformation using social media platforms, while in others they are targeting the American election infrastructure.
“Our democracy is under attack,” Jeh Johnson, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, said in an interview. “I believe that the cyber threat to our nation is going to get worse before it gets better. Those on offense, which include nation states, are increasingly tenacious. And those of us on defense struggle to keep up.
“I believe we have yet to learn the full extent of the Russian influence campaign in 2016,” he added. “And they’ve been given little disincentive to do anything different in 2018.”
The risks came into sharp relief on Friday with a detailed indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations that allegedly worked to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election. They posed as Americans, stole identities, and sowed political discord by planning rallies, paying for political advertisements, and engaging in social media activity.
The indictment alleges that the conspiracy began in 2014 and had a monthly budget of $1.25 million, with the aim of conducting “information warfare against the United States.”
Jeanette Manfra, chief cybersecurity official for the Department of Homeland Security, has also stated that Russian hackers targeted 21 states’ election systems before the 2016 presidential election, breaching a small number of them. She noted that there was no evidence any votes were changed.
While states have been trying to upgrade election infrastructure to prevent such problems as hacking, there is an ongoing debate over how to counter misinformation campaigns.
“We have to be careful about injecting the security apparatus of our government into regulating speech,” Johnson said. “Other governments do that. In this country we have to be careful about calling that a national security matter. Governments like ours do not regulate speech, particularly political speech.”
Instead, he said, it may be up to such service providers as Facebook and Twitter to do more to regulate access to their networks.
Galvin, the Massachusetts secretary of state, says the misinformation is a problem for all election officials — but it’s also something a bit out of their control.
“Are people questioning? Yes. Is the questioning a concern of people like me? Yes. Because it makes it much more difficult for people like me to say, ‘Come out and vote, your vote will count,’” he said.
State officials say the last several months have involved a flurry of activity to prepare for threats.
“At the state level we’re doing everything we can. All the states, red states or blue states, are diligent and focused about trying to protect their systems,” said Vermont Secretary of State James Condos, a Democrat who is the incoming president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. “But it goes back to the top. If the president is not willing to help us, then we’ve got to fend for ourselves.”
The concern, largely, is of the unknown: that foreign hackers are quicker to discover the holes in American cybersecurity than US officials are at plugging them.
“As I say to others, we’re only as good as today is,” Condos said. “The bad actors are constantly evolving, they’re constantly changing. They’re looking for different ways to get in. We’re trying to stay ahead of them, or at least even with them.”
Election experts say the aim of Russia or other foreign forces during the midterm elections is probably not to help one candidate win or to help Republicans maintain control of the House or Senate. Instead, they say, the effort seems driven more toward simply sowing doubt among Americans about the validity of our voting system.
“It is high risk and questionable reward to actually try and change an outcome of an election in the US,” said David Becker, founder and executive director the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “What you can do is a low-risk, high-reward proposition — which is what the Kremlin has been doing — which is be open about your intent to mess with our elections, be discovered, and then let the American people sow their own doubt about their system.
“This is really about whether the voters have trust in our method of choosing our leaders, which is essential for our democracy,’’ he said. “Russia has been absolutely essential in diminishing that trust.”
President Trump has downplayed Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. Congress last year overwhelmingly passed a sanctions package to punish Russia for meddling, but the Trump administration announced last month that it would not implement those sanctions.
“It is a dereliction of duty that the president has not taken steps to punish Russia for its 2016 actions,” said Liz Kennedy, senior director of Democracy and Government Reform at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and the co-author of a recent report examining election security in all 50 states. “Clearly not imposing the sanctions that Congress ordered . . . is exactly the wrong signal to send to Russia.’’
While election experts have been generally pleased with the amount of work that state election officials have been doing to improve their systems, there is still a wide degree of concern that states are not getting enough help from Washington.
“I really see this as our current Sputnik moment,” Kennedy said. “If they have these tools they’ve developed, we need to outsmart them and develop better tools. . . . Time is short. It needs to be a real priority.”Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.