Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats had cautioned that “the warning lights are blinking red again,” and experts warned that voting systems, in particular, could be at risk. Russia had likely targeted them in all 50 states in 2016 and had gained access to voter-registration files in Illinois and Arizona. But despite myriad concerns about vulnerabilities—from voting machines to tabulation systems to phishing attacks on campaigns—election hacking, by and large, did not factor in the 2018 elections. A recent report from Coats’ office to the White House confirmed as much: U.S. intelligence officials had no evidence that voting systems had been compromised, although social-media disinformation aimed at American voters had continued apace. “The Russians didn’t need to do much in 2018. They enjoy all the turmoil in the U.S. and probably take credit for 2016 outcomes,” said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Midterms are confusing and the Russians probably couldn’t figure out the pressure points to swing voters. If they have new tricks, they are saving them for 2020.”
If Russia (and other foreign powers) are biding their time for the next election year, is America ready for a fresh round of attempted interference? And as the 2020 elections approach, what have officials and experts learned?
One benefit of 2016’s meddling was that it brought a slew of recommendations from election and cybersecurity experts on how to guard against vote hacking. Before the 2018 midterms, experts had recommended a handful of equipment and policy changes—like new voting machines, anti-phishing training, and two-factor authentication for employees logging into voter databases.