Tomorrow is a big test for election security coast to coast, as eight states including California hold primaries in one of the most consequential voting days since the presidential election. It’s the largest block of states to do so before the November midterms, and election officials hope they have the right safeguards in place to stave off the kinds of cyberattacks that occurred in 2016. That year, Russian hackers targeted election systems in 21 states. “We’ve done everything that we could think of doing — not to just assess what happened in 2016 but to fortify our defenses,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told me. “Cybersecurity concerns are equally top-of-mind in the primary as they are in November,” he said. “We’re not considered a swing state, but we’re still California and from a security standpoint a high-value target, so we’re taking it very seriously, to protect our election process and the integrity of elections.”
Yet the states holding primaries on Tuesday run the gamut when it comes to election security. California and New Mexico, for instance, are widely considered ahead of the curve, having already adopted the paper ballot systems with easily verifiable results and post-election auditing recommended by experts. Several states have hired and trained new staff, upgraded computer networks or brought in technical experts to test their systems for weaknesses. But other states are further behind. Voters in New Jersey and Mississippi, for example, will be casting ballots Tuesday on aging electronic machines that experts widely agree should be scrapped because they’re hackable and their results can’t be audited.
Officials say they’ll be watching closely for any indications of interference, such as voters showing up to the polls to find their registrations were altered or outages on websites that post election night results.
“My staff and all 33 New Mexico county clerks have worked hard to ensure that proper security protocols are in place so that Election Day goes smoothly,” New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told me in an email. “I’ll keep the lines of communication open with our county clerks, relevant federal agencies and other state election officials so there is a coordinated and effective response to any attempts to interfere in New Mexico’s elections.”
And there’s reason to be optimistic: Election officials who have worked on shoestring budgets for years are receiving local, state and federal money — including a $380 infusion from Congress — for cybersecurity improvements. And officials at all levels of government are partnering with private-sector researchers to share expertise and information about cyberthreats in ways they never have.
That’s all good news going into Tuesday, said David Becker, director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit working to improve election administration. “It’s a test of all the work that has been done to date,” he said, “and fortunately that work is significant.”