How Safe Is the US Election from Hacking? | by Jennifer Cohn

A voter casting a ballot on an electronic device

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A voter casting a ballot on an electronic device in early voting, Los Angeles, California, October 29, 2020

In September, The New York Times reported on a concerning surge in Russian ransomware attacks against the United States, including “against small towns, big cities and the contractors who run their voting systems,” the “full scale” of which “is not always disclosed.” Last week, the newspaper further reported that Russia “has in recent days hacked into state and local computer networks in breaches that could allow Moscow broader access to American voting infrastructure,” but said that “Russia’s ability to change vote tallies nationwide is limited,” a caveat that seems more ominous than reassuring. Meanwhile, public officials and voting-machine vendors historically have not always been forthcoming with the public about the extent of security weaknesses and breaches. Election security advocates worry that this lack of transparency may leave the public exposed both to potential election theft and to false claims that election theft has occurred. In an effort to mitigate these risks, grassroots efforts around the country seek to make the 2020 election more transparent than past elections.

In August 2016, according to David Shimer’s book Rigged, “the U.S. Intelligence community had reported that Russian hackers could edit actual vote tallies, according to four of Obama’s senior advisors.” But the only government official who publicly alluded to this possibility was then Senate minority leader Harry Reid. On August 29, 2016, Reid published a letter he’d sent to then FBI director James Comey in which he said the threat of Russian interference “is more extensive than is widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.”

Reid has said that he believes vote tallies were changed in 2016. According to Rigged, “Obama’s leading advisors dismissed Reid’s theory, with a catch: they could not rule it out.” James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, told Shimer: “We…