Maryland may be getting a dry run in how to respond to an election cyberattack. State officials say a computer glitch prevented the Board of Elections from updating voter registration data for as many as 80,000 voters. As a result, droves of people will have to cast provisional ballots if they want to vote in Maryland’s primary today. No, it wasn’t the work of hackers. But the technical error simulated what a hack on a state’s voter registration database might look like — and how election administrators might handle it. “Almost everything that a malicious actor might try to do can also happen by accident,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, which promotes voting rights. The discovery of the flaw offers a valuable lesson for election officials as they work to improve the security of their election systems ahead of the November midterms, which U.S. intelligence chiefs warn are already being targeted by Russian hackers. And the response shows that election administrators are ready to move quickly if something goes awry.
“This is an example of how officials are prepared to deal with voter registration problems,” Norden told me. “Election officials are generally very good at thinking about what can go wrong and how to prevent such problems from keeping people from voting or having those votes count.”
The practical effect of the situation in Maryland mirrors some worst-case scenarios election security experts say could arise if hackers were to tamper with statewide voter registration databases. “The concern about tampering with voter registration databases is legitimate,” Norden said. “Moreover, registration databases have been successfully targeted in other countries.”
And it isn’t far-fetched here. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Russian hackers scanned election systems in 21 states and actually penetrated Illinois’s voter database, though there’s no evidence they actually changed anything. Altering thousands of voters’ registration details could cause chaos at the polls, as some experts have warned.