As Midterms Approach, U.S. Election Integrity Is in Question
With U.S. intelligence chiefs warning that Russian operatives are already mobilizing to mar the November midterms, fear and confusion over the integrity of the nation's election systems are running at an all-time high.
Although some bellwether special elections have been held in recent months, the primary votes in Texas and Illinois this month kick off the official contests that will determine the balance of power in Congress and in statehouses across the nation.
State and federal officials readily acknowledge that the shadows that hung over the 2016 vote have not cleared, including Kremlin-directed disinformation efforts, abuse of social media and attempts to hack state electoral systems.
Democrats say the Trump administration has not taken the threat seriously enough, while Republicans point the finger at the Obama White House for failing to act in 2016. Technology specialists fault the Department of Homeland Security and social media companies for failing to get a handle on the threat.
Homeland Security officials say Russian agents attacked elections systems in 21 states two years ago, but the targeted states say it is still unclear how deeply hackers breached their voter registration databases.
Texas officials last week denounced an NBC News report citing "substantial evidence" from federal officials that Russian-backed operatives penetrated some of their most sensitive databases in 2016.
Officials at the Texas Department of Public Safety and State Library and Archives Commission acknowledge that hackers looked into agency websites for vulnerabilities, but they contend no data was ever stolen nor manipulated. This time, officials have created a special alert to detect any suspicious activity at the voter registration database.
Still, Texas Democrats have criticized Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, for not doing more.
"Texans need answers," state Democratic Party primary director Glen Maxey said in a recent statement. "The fact is, we don't sit on the sidelines after a conventional military attack. An attack on our democracy in cyberspace should be no different."
In Illinois, which holds its primary on March 20, hackers in 2016 gained access to roughly 76,000 active voter registration records but apparently were not able to make changes. State employees now must undergo cybersecurity training focused on preventing "phishing" attacks -- the tactic Russians used on Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta to break into his email.
Illinois officials have also been granted federal security clearances to learn more classified information from Homeland Security about threats, a major issue for the 21 states targeted in 2016. But officials also acknowledge that they are still wary and that Illinois is one of 14 states that requested a Homeland Security risk assessment of their electronic databases.
Federal intelligence officials have made clear in recent days that the threat is still active. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers have issued stark warnings in Capitol Hill testimony.
"Clearly what we have done hasn't been enough," Mr. Rogers told senators last week when asked about efforts to stop Russia.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence announced that it would issue monthly reports on vulnerabilities in the U.S. election system as November approaches, focusing in part on the vulnerabilities of individual campaigns to covert foreign meddling.
"One of the most vulnerable entities in our democratic system is a campaign itself," Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel, said in remarks last week to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "A campaign is the quintessential startup. The notion that they're going to have the kind of good cyberhygiene you need -- I think that has to be a part of [the security recommendations] that we put out there."
The continuing danger was underscored by special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment last month in what investigators say is a massive Kremlin-led scheme to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread disinformation to American voters.
During congressional hearings last year, Mr. Warner and Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, pressed leaders from Facebook, Google and Twitter to explain why they didn't do more to stop Russian abuses of their platforms.
Mr. Warner said in an interview last month that social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter are "one significant event away from people losing faith" in their products.
"The truth is, where we stand here in the beginning of March, we are not prepared. We are not fully prepared," Mr. Warner said.
After Texas and Illinois in March, the primary season resumes in May in Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Idaho, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina.
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