Greasing the machinery of democracy can be tedious business. Aside from the occasional recount or a hanging chad, the bureaucrats who run state elections don’t usually see much drama in their work. But this year’s all-important midterms are no ordinary election cycle. So it was that election administrators from all 50 states received rarified, red-carpet treatment outside Washington earlier this year, as federal intelligence gurus granted them secret clearances for the day, shuttled them to a secure facility, and gave them eye-opening, classified briefings on the looming threat. The message, participants said, was chilling. Officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency and other agencies warned that the Russians had already shown they could hit hard in the 2016 presidential campaign, and they have been preparing to hit even harder — and no doubt in different ways — this time around. “This was a first for me,” Steve Sandvoss, who heads the Illinois elections office and attended the briefing, said in a recent interview. “I came out of there with the understanding that the threat is not going to go away.” The midterms will determine control of Congress, where a flip to the Democrats in the House or the Senate would no doubt intensify the pressure Trump is already facing from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Over the years, officials in Washington have rarely paid much attention to the mechanics of state elections, and local vote-counting officials, who prize their independence, have usually wanted it that way. But Moscow’s surprise attacks on the 2016 campaign — through cyber-hacks and skillful manipulation of social media — has triggered alarm at all levels of government, generating a slew of initiatives over the last 18 months that are aimed at bolstering security.
… Other federal and state officials echoed that view. “We are light years ahead of where we were in 2016. There were lessons learned from that,” Thomas Hicks, a commissioner on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which has been doling out the new federal funding to state election systems, said in an interview.
But some outside cyber-security and election experts are skeptical, saying the vulnerabilities in the election system remain gaping. Remarkably, five states rely solely on electronic voting tabulations, with no paper backup to verify the results. “Anyone who thinks ‘don’t worry, nothing bad can happen,’” said Jeremy Epstein, a computer scientist and expert on election technology who works with the Verified Voting Foundation, “really has their head in the sand.”