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The recent ransomware attacks on city governments in Atlanta and Baltimore set off alarm bells among federal officials.Those attacks, in which online intruders locked up data in certain computer systems, led officials to consider what would happen if skilled hackers, domestic or foreign, locked up a state’s voter registration system just before Election Day.
Initially, few people paid attention to computer security experts who warned that these systems were vulnerable to hacking.
More recently, states have begun to heed those warnings, and a number of states have shifted to voter-marked, optical-scan paper ballots.
South Carolina’s State Election Commission said this month that it would introduce a paper-based voting system in January and planned to “build additional layers of security designed to harden the new system.”Yet Florida, home of the United States’ best-known presidential balloting problems, like hanging chads in 2000 and still mysterious Russian activity in 2016, once again seems far behind.
And the fear among American intelligence officials is that the federal government and the 50 states may be making the classic mistake of believing their adversaries will use the same techniques again.“No one expects the Russians will use their old playbook” in the next election, said Suzanne Spaulding, who oversaw election security at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration and is now looking at how Russia is expanding its targets to undermine confidence in the American judicial system.
Such optical-scan ballots can be counted by machines, but they still leave room for a full hand recount if there's a dispute about the accuracy of the machine count.
Yet some states still rely on paperless electronic systems.Other officials point to evidence that Iran, having seen how cheap and easy it is to create election-year chaos in a Western democracy, is already experimenting with the possibilities.So while the states are thinking about how to ensure every voter can confirm their selections on paper, and in the best case track an encrypted ballot to make sure it is counted, federal officials are war-gaming emerging risks.At the National Security Agency, where a new Cybersecurity Directorate is about to be formed to coordinate defensive and offensive actions, there are new worries that Russian hackers are learning to operate from networks based in the United States — where they know the agency cannot legally investigate.Less than 16 months from the next Election Day, the picture of American preparedness is mixed.And despite a flurry of activity across the federal government, coordination is a major challenge — chiefly because President Trump, who has only episodically acknowledged the Russian interference in 2016, reacts badly whenever aides bring up the topic, which he interprets as questioning the legitimacy of his election.He has never overseen detailed meetings about hardening the American system, and he undermined a White House briefing for reporters about actions it was taking when he joked with President Vladimir V.The use of paperless voting machines became widespread in the early 21st century.Some states "upgraded" to paperless systems using federal dollars intended to prevent a repeat of the Florida recount debacle in the 2000 presidential election.The report issued Thursday by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that “some states were highly focused on building a culture of cybersecurity; others were severely underresourced and relying on part-time help.”Federal officials say they are particularly worried about states like New Jersey, where only three counties are making the first experiments that create a paper trail for balloting.Pennsylvania and Texas also remain major concerns, the officials said.