Since the late summer of 2016, despite a renewed focus by the intelligence community and security officials, the stream of media reports and alerts about interference in the conduct of our elections has hardly abated. Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security soberly intoned that all 50 states had been subjected to scanning, probing and the outright attacking of electronic election systems for years. In Maine, these are questions we get a lot. Are we vulnerable? Should we be worried?
By now, we know that undermining elections is a more pervasive construct than the narrowly defined threat of a hacker getting into election results and altering them. That threat, ironically, doesn’t exist in most jurisdictions, particularly Maine, where there is no electronic system to hack — we use all paper ballots, and the tabulations are mailed to the Secretary of State’s office.
That being said, we certainly bear our share of risks. The Central Voter Registration system is an internet-based tool, primarily used by election officials, candidates and campaigns. Password-protections and firewalls, as we have seen around the world, are not foolproof, and information services programmers and technicians are constantly changing and upgrading our security plans to be ready for the practically inevitable attack.
Every American should be concerned about the security of our systems, for sure; but we shouldn’t give up faith in them, either. For my own part, I’ve had my credit card compromised a half-dozen times in the last five years; but I still have one and use it. I’ve simply learned how to better protect myself, and in this modern paradigm of international technology interference, we’re doing the same at the state-elections level.
Voter confidence — that condition that makes our election process viable and relevant — is not dependent only on secure technology, however. Deep analysis of foreign influence in our elections has revealed that outside actors have attacked our consciousness more than our systems. Dummy news organizations that have manipulated real news outlets, social media memes and manipulated rumors that have been reposted, shared and retweeted have done more to affect the outcome of our elections than any casual probe of the voter registration database firewall. But that’s part of the game, too; by letting word drop that we’ve been attacked, we react the same way, whether the attack is real or not.
Foreign interests haven’t invented this strategy; they’ve only co-opted it. Campaigns, candidates, parties, and political action groups have always lined up to give their bases of support their strongest arguments — or most compelling version of events. Gamesmanship has been a frustration for democracy since the earliest days of nationhood. “Election day for X party is Tuesday, but for Y Party it’s Wednesday,” is a historic example of this.
Unfortunately, when the stakes are high and a campaign feels the chances of victory beginning to slip away, their efforts have turned on casting doubt on the process itself. In the 2018 cycle, for example, a pair of absentee voters reached out to our offices after they heard misinformation about which races were tabulated by ranked-choice voting, prompting concerns that the voters had inaccurately ranked choices in the race for governor and that their votes wouldn’t be counted. We served as intermediaries to their town clerk, who pulled their sealed ballots for them to inspect. When they saw the correctly marked ballots with their own eyes, they walked away, scratching their heads about what they’d heard in the public discourse.
The most important bulwark in the security of our elections are the voters themselves. Every voter should care enough to ask tough questions — of their election officials, security experts, the candidates and each other. They should be so prepared that no citizen can have their democracy undermined by a ghostwritten Facebook message or other deception. And, when they stand up and cast their votes, they will proclaim that in America, we can govern ourselves, and won’t be fooled by lies about our systems, our candidates, our democracy, and our country.
Matt Dunlap of Old Town is Maine’s secretary of state.