Top security and intelligence officials warned on Tuesday that Russia would try to interfere in the 2018 elections again, just as it did in 2016. “We need to inform the American public that this is real, that this is not going to be happening,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee. They didn’t specify how we were going to stop it, but we know there is one place we know we can start: upgrading the ramshackle, out-of-date voting equipment that is more vulnerable to hacking than newer machines.
We now know that Russian influence operations in the 2016 election went far beyond Twitter bots and email hacking. Russian hackers also tried to penetrate elections systems in as many as 39 states, according to some reporting. They sent phishing emails to hundreds of election offices. There’s no reason to think that vote totals were changed by the break-ins, but it was an uncomfortably close call—and a troubling reminder of what kind of damage could have been done.
Recently, my organization, the Brennan Center for Justice, surveyed 952 election officials nationwide and found that 41 states likely will use voting machines this fall that are more than a decade old. Some are even using systems that still run Windows 2000. Officials in 33 states told us they need to replace their voting machines by 2020, and the majority don’t have the money to do so. These old machines are a problem because as they age, they become more difficult to repair and are more vulnerable to breakdowns. They are often more easily hacked than newer models because they can run on old software like Windows 2000 that no longer receives security patches, and they usually haven’t been tested to today’s more rigorous security certification standards. Neal Kelley, the registrar of voters for Orange County, California, told us that many machines in his state are so old they can’t be repaired. “The sky really is falling,” he says.