Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, stated the obvious during an interview on NPR’s June 7 Morning Edition program. Commenting on the leak of an alleged National Security Agency document indicating that the Russians attempted to hack into state voting systems in the run-up to the 2016 elections, Schiff said, “[I]t looks like to me like that the Russians were, in a sense, preparing the battlefield, that if they wanted to escalate, they were probing our election systems to find out just what they could accomplish. And this, obviously, ought to alarm us in the sense that we need to make sure that our voting infrastructure, which is critical, is well protected.”
Amen. What the past year has revealed is that the most important element of our democracy – our electoral infrastructure – is dangerously vulnerable and that there are foreign entities that are actively seeking to exploit these weaknesses. Even though in Congressman Schiff’s estimation (from his position on the Intelligence Committee) there is “no evidence” that the Russian meddling “in anyway changed the votes” in the 2016 election, we need to move immediately and decisively to fix the problems the Russians exposed.
Schiff was speaking, of course, about the need to safeguard the assortment of computer and software systems used by the myriad election authorities around the country. These inadequately protected systems, as we now know, are vulnerable to attack from foreign governments and sophisticated hackers. But there are other weaknesses – ones Rep. Schiff and the leadership of his party are less eager to fix – that leave our electoral system vulnerable to a less sophisticated form of attack. In most places in this country we have no real controls over who registers to vote, or whether people who cast votes are U.S. citizens.
If a foreign government is willing to invest considerable resources into an effort to hack into electoral computer systems, is it really a stretch to believe that they could use illegally registered voters to stuff ballot boxes or fill out absentee ballots? In fact, it would not even take a foreign government to exploit these vulnerabilities. Foreign non-government entities, or even domestic political activists could exploit our quaint honor-system registration and voting process to swing elections.
Rep. Schiff has far more information about what the Russians have been up to than the rest of us, and we need to take his warnings very seriously. But Rep. Schiff and his Democratic colleagues in Washington and across the country need to acknowledge the opportunities for mischief posed by our 19th century system of registering voters and making sure that all votes are cast honestly. It’s not as sexy as the Russians hacking our computers, and it is bound to upset a few radical civil libertarians, but securing the registration and voting process is no less important to the integrity of our elections.