The intelligence community fears that Russia’s meddling in US elections did not end in November 2016, and that when the Kremlin tries to intervene again, state and local voting systems will be a prime target. “They will be back,” former FBI Director James Comey warned in June. Many election systems would prove an easy target. Last month, hackers at the annual DEF Con conference demonstrated this vulnerability when they easily breached multiple voting machines. A 16-year-old hacked a machine in 45 minutes. In response to this threat, the Department of Homeland Security has taken a major step to protect elections by prioritizing the cybersecurity of state and local voting systems. Yet several members of President Donald Trump’s controversial election commission oppose DHS’s move, and two of them have dismissed the threat entirely as a ploy for the federal government to intrude on states’ rights. Their opposition is a signal that the commission, tasked with finding vulnerabilities in the country’s election system, is not likely to take cybersecurity seriously. On January 6, the same day that the intelligence community released a declassified report alleging Russian meddling in the election, DHS announced that it would make additional cybersecurity assistance available to states that request it. This was done by classifying election infrastructure as “critical infrastructure,” a designation that already brings heightened security measures to critical infrastructure such as dams and the electrical grid. The move means that DHS will provide risk assessments, system scanning, and other cybersecurity services to states that request them. But several election officials and experts who sit on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity quickly condemned the designation.
Christy McCormick, a Republican commission member, said in a statement the next day that Russian interference was a hoax used by the federal government to gain access to state-run election systems. “This declassified report was not about the November elections; it was about politics,” said McCormick, who is also a member of the bipartisan Election Assistance Commission, which helps states administer elections. “Connecting the allegations in the report to the election administration process and asserting that it rose to the level of interference in our elections is a gross and incorrect characterization.”
Rather than accept the findings of the intelligence agencies, McCormick turned to John McAfee, the eccentric founder of the McAfee antivirus software company, as an expert on the question of Russian interference. McAfee, who ran unsuccessfully for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 2016, has spent the last year on a crusade to exonerate Russia from the intelligence community’s assessment that it hacked the Democratic National Committee. McAfee has found an audience in Russian state-run media outlets, conspiratorial radio host Alex Jones, and pro-Trump right-wing blogs such as Gateway Pundit. “McAfee believes that the report is deceptive propaganda perpetrated on the American public, and I agree,” McCormick said.
The following week, Hans von Spakovsky, a commission member who has long warned about illegal voting and led efforts to make it harder to vote, published an approving blog post on McCormick’s objections to the critical infrastructure designation. Von Spakovsky has his own theories about why DHS decided to designate voting systems as critical infrastructure. When DHS first began to consider the designation last summer, following the first reports of breaches of state election systems by the Russians, von Spakovsky posited that the Obama administration was using the threat of hacks in order to gain entry into state and local election systems and help its preferred candidates win.