As millions of people across the country vote in eight different primaries today, state officials are working hard to secure the elections from hackers. But officials say there’s a more pressing, albeit abstract, challenge: Keeping voters confident that their vote is safe. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that a major goal of Russia’s campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election through cyberattacks on 21 states and national political organizations was to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process. By that count, election officials say, they’re already succeeding in this cycle — without breaching a single system. Just the fear of digital sabotage — and the perception that voting machines are hackable — is enough to scare voters into a lack of confidence in the democratic process, election officials lament.
“What terrorists do is instill fear into the general population — if they’ve done that they’ve accomplished their goals,” said Alex Padilla, secretary of state of California, which holds its primary Tuesday. That’s why election interference, Padilla says, is “in and of itself is an attack on our democracy. Any enemy, foreign or domestic, that’s trying to sow doubts, that’s a form of voter suppression.” He adds: “The best way to overcome that is to get as many people out to vote as possible.”
Officials say the way to do that is to communicate the best and most accurate information to voters. But that can be a challenge.
They must be clear-eyed and transparent about the threat and the need to upgrade vulnerable election systems. After all, U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned Russia is still trying to sow divisions among voters with a social media disinformation campaign and even potentially trying to infiltrate election systems to steal voter information or change data. There’s no evidence of any successful state breach so far, though Tennessee has already weathered a cyberattack that caused a county election results website to go dark for an hour during a May primary and it’s not clear who was behind it.