As Americans, voting is one of the most private and personal acts of our adult lives. But foreign hackers have recently attacked voter databases in Illinois and Arizona, raising concern that our votes could be stolen. Could it really happen, and is there anything you can do to protect your vote?
According to experts, it would be extremely difficult for hackers to take over the results of a U.S. election for several reasons:
- There is no unified U.S. election system that can be infiltrated and attacked from within. In fact, there are over 9,000 separate polling places across the U.S., each with its own staff and voting machines.
- Researchers at Time magazine calculated that 70% of voters will still be using paper ballots in November.
- When electronic voting machines are used, they are not connected to the Internet. Hackers would have to be physically present at polling places to compromise tens of thousands of individual machines to take over the election results.
- Different states and counties use different makes and models of electronic voting machines, so attackers would also need to figure out how to compromise each type, and many of those voting machines have built-in backup systems in place to protect results.
While it’s improbable that the election could be hacked, tampering in swing states or key counties could certainly spread fear and doubt about the election results. And national security experts believe that is exactly what these foreign hackers are trying to do by attacking voter databases. (Anyone who voted in the 2000 presidential election remembers the “hanging chad” controversy in Florida and the turmoil it caused.)
To help prevent problems, the Department of Homeland Security is working with state elections commissions to anticipate and prevent problems, and the FBI is asking state elections boards to review activity logs on their computer systems and look for any sign of tampering.
If you’re concerned about protecting your vote, your best option is probably a paper ballot that could be used in a recount. The majority of voting precincts are still using paper ballots, and many electronic voting machines allow you to print out a paper ballot as backup. If your precinct uses electronic machines with no paper backup, you still have time to request a paper absentee ballot that you can mail in. (You can find state deadlines and instructions at usvotefoundation.org.)
It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty that there is zero risk foreign hackers could attempt to impact this election, but the most important thing is that we don’t let this uncertainty cause panic that interferes with our democratic process. To paraphrase the famous British wartime motto, we must keep calm and vote on.