The 2016 U.S. election constituted a watershed for democracies in the digital age. During the election cycle, fears proliferated among policymakers and the public that foreign actors could exploit cyber technologies [PDF] to tamper with voter registration, access voting machines, manipulate storage and transmission of results, and influence election outcomes. Russian information operations and disinformation on social media compounded these fears about election cybersecurity by raising questions about foreign interference with the election’s integrity. Similar worries have arisen with elections this year in France, Britain, and Germany, and the Netherlands opted to hand count ballots in its March election to prevent hacking from affecting the outcome. In May 3 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, James B. Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, indicated that Russia had tried to tamper with vote counts in other countries and that it might attempt to do the same in the United States in the future. Technical strategies [PDF] to protect election systems from cyber interference exist, such as stopping the use of voting machines connected by wireless networks and deploying machines that produce auditable paper trails. However, the events of 2016 demonstrate that more high-level political action is required to manage real and perceived cyber vulnerabilities in election systems.
Government officials and nongovernmental organizations that support elections should adopt measures to protect election systems from online threats, deter cyber interference with such systems, and reassure citizens their right to vote is defended. Achieving these objectives requires local, national, and international actions to strengthen cybersecurity in election systems and to elevate election integrity in cybersecurity policies, human rights activities, and election assistance and monitoring.
Digital technologies and the internet have affected how elections are conducted, including through internet voting and online voter registration. Although reliance on computers and communication networks for elections has garnered some attention [PDF], election cybersecurity has not been politically prominent within democracies.