What if it happens on Election Day, another botnet-launched attack that darkens large parts of the Internet?
Think of it as a potential sequel to the mid-October incident, when unknown hackers used Internet-connected printers, cameras, routers, and DVRs to disrupt Internet traffic for the better part of the day. Only this time, they’d be trying to damage the technology — and integrity — of the US election.
The good news is that even if the Internet goes down on Nov. 8, your vote will still count. Few states use computer-based voting machines, and even those machines aren’t online.
It’s everything else that becomes a problem: confirming voters’ eligibility, organizing get-out-the-vote efforts, and providing results to the media and the world.
And with one candidate already calling the election rigged, any kinks are likely to spark rumor and conspiracy, undermining faith in the process and threatening the orderly transfer of power.
Let’s break the system down piece by piece to get a sense of where the vulnerabilities lie and how an Internet failure might wreak its damage.
When it comes to the act of voting, there’s actually little risk. In most parts of the county, you’ll just go about your regular business, filling in bubbles or flipping switches on a mechanical voting machine. True, some states do use computer-based voting machines, sort of like an ATM, but even they are kept offline, with no need for input from a cloud.
Same goes for the next step in the process: vote tabulation. The devices used to read your bubbles and collate results tend to be old-fashioned; they are either kept offline for security purposes or sometimes pre-date the online revolution.
Elsewhere, though, things get a little stickier. Generally the first thing you do when you enter a polling place is share your name and address, so that a local volunteer can make sure you’re rightly registered and eligible to vote. Time was, those volunteers just looked you up in a physical book of names and addresses. But increasingly they’re using tablets, laptops, and other electronic poll books. In Massachusetts, Secretary of State William Galvin has recommended e-poll-books for big cities, but uptake remains slow.
MIT professor Charles Stewart III suggested to me that in some precincts these e-poll-books might rely on the Internet to check information against a central database. No access, no confirmation. This is especially a concern in states that offer same-day registration, since they need Internet access to pass your information up the chain and get you registered.
Generally speaking, these sorts of problems shouldn’t affect your vote. Even if a downed Internet makes it hard to confirm your eligibility, you can still fill out a provisional ballot which will get counted when the Internet rebounds.
And yet, this could easily gum up the works, meaning long lines, greater confusion, and the growing likelihood that some voters will just give up and head home. And while polling places might compensate by staying open late, that open-doors message might not spread as far without the Internet.
Or, perhaps more likely, people may struggle to get to the polls in the first place. Just think of how many people wait for Election Day to look up the address of their assigned polling places. Without the Internet, that’s a lot harder to do (sure there’s a phone number, but how are you going to look that up?) You also won’t get the usual cues from Facebook and beyond about friends who’ve voted and the stakes of the day.
Organized get-out-the-vote efforts will have their own challenges. Increasingly, campaigns and their local surrogates rely on apps to identify key voters and maximize last-minute canvassing. But without the Internet, those apps won’t work. And while the most sophisticated, national campaigns may have backup plans, that’s less true of down-ballot candidates and advocacy groups, which creates some real potential for canvassing chaos and reduced turnout.
Finally, and perhaps most ominous, there’s the question of what happens after the polls close. Usually Americans tune in for the quadrennial cable-news election night ritual, celebrated with two-tone maps and portentous pronouncements about the political future.
Not so without the Internet. You could still watch television, of course, but a lot of those election-night returns are collected through the Internet. So an outage would make it difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate results with the usual speed and accuracy.
Maybe you’re thinking: “So what, we could all get a good night of sleep and find out in the morning.” Except the integrity of this election has already been called into question by the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Any unusual delays or unexpected problems could reinforce his position that the outcome is “rigged.”
And you can bet there will be real-world fodder somewhere around the country. Remember, there is no central body overseeing US elections. They’re set up and managed at the local level by cities, towns, and counties. And in a country with more than 3,000 counties, there’s bound to be some foolishness somewhere, some system whose surprising vulnerability to Internet attack raises questions about the overall results. It happened in 2000, with the butterfly ballot -- a technical issue that swung the election. Already this year, several states have had their voter registration systems targeted by Russian hackers.
So the biggest challenge of an Election Day attack on the Internet may have less to do with technology and more to do with our fragile faith in government. The voting machines will still work, the tabulation will be delayed but still accurate, and with provisional ballots we can overcome many small uncertainties.
But think of the empty hours on cable news and the space created for wild hypothesis and unfounded fear. What fills this void when we can’t share our thoughts and experiences online, or get access to near-instant results? Civic patience, or wild conspiracy? That may be the weightiest risk.