The best defense against Russian hackers may be our low-tech elections

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you. But by the same token, just because they’re out to get you doesn’t mean you need to be paranoid.

Donald Trump had already set us on a dark conspiracy pathway this election season, when he announced in August that the only way he could lose Pennsylvania was “if, in certain sections of the state, they cheat.”

The system, the Republican presidential candidate has testified repeatedly, is rigged.

Now comes the news that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have launched an inquiry into what they think is a covert Russian operation to sow public distrust in the November presidential election.

Voter records in Illinois have been breached. An apparently similar attempt in Arizona was unsuccessful. This follows the very real penetration of the Democratic National Committee’s email system by Russian hackers, which ultimately resulted in the removal of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chairman.

The federal Department of Homeland Security has formed an “election infrastructure cyber security working group.” Our own Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is in charge of all Georgia balloting, has agreed to participate – though somewhat reluctantly, it seems. And we’ll get to that.

There is a fine line to be struck between sounding the alarm over attempts to undermine the nation’s election system, and destroying confidence in that system’s reliability. We have a situation that requires cool heads — in a political season that seems blessed with a surplus of bombast and hyperbole.

So it is worth noting that we’ve been here before.

Georgia implemented electronic voting in 2002, a reaction to the hanging-chad debacle in Florida that smudged the end of the 2000 presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Many Georgians balked at the fix.

“People seemed to be freaking out because their votes were being counted by a computer,” said Cathy Cox, who as secretary of state pushed for the upgrade. She’s now president of Young Harris College.

The internet was still in its infancy. The obsession among conspiracy theorists was that the software in the machines could be manipulated to produce foreordained results – “that somebody was introducing some element that would trigger things to go wrong,” Cox said.

Their dark-motive theories went out the window that November, when the new machines churned out numbers that ousted the governor and speaker of the Georgia House, both Democrats who had approved funding for what was then cutting-edge technology.

Yes, Georgia’s votes are still tallied on those individual computers. But the system is no longer considered high tech. Which, in this particular discussion, should inspire confidence.

“Nothing about the system is ever connected to the internet. So all of the conspiracy theories about hacking cannot happen in Georgia,” Cox said. “You’d have to go machine by machine, in a polling place, while poll workers are sitting there watching you.”

Off-season, the voting machines are locked in cases, which are then kept in locked rooms. Again, low-tech wins. A padlocked closet can be far more secure than anything on the internet these days.

Cox pointed to Georgia’s settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, which now requires a nine-week runoff in primary and general elections – to allow for paper ballots to be cast by military personnel and ex-pats overseas.

The lengthy period between elections could be largely eliminated by internet-based voting. “Some of the federal folks have decided it’s worth it to give our overseas and military personnel the right to vote, to take that risk for their votes. If it were up to state officials – they would not have wanted to go there,” Cox said.

And Georgia hasn’t.

Look, hackers are out there. And in force. Over 10 months in 2014 and 2015, the U.S. military repelled more than 30 million cyber-attacks, according to retired Adm. James Winnefeld, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who now teaches at Georgia Tech.

That said, you can count Merle King among those who decline to panic when that targeting is expanded to election data. King is executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, which oversees the operation of the state’s voting machines and the ballots programmed within.

He has been more than frustrated these last few weeks. “It often takes me half an hour to explain why a 20-second sound bite is incorrect,” he said. “That’s a part of the challenge.”

King divides attempts to undermine the U.S. election system into three categories:

— Efforts to discredit the winner. That’s where Trump’s comments fall. “Though ‘loser talk’ usually doesn’t happen til after the election,” King said.

The Florida experience in 2000 is evidence of the damage it can do. “In America, we take for granted that the day after the election, it’s usually business as usual,” King said. “What we’re not good at is a protracted discussion of innuendo and unsubstantiated claims that drag on and on and on.”

— Then there are efforts to disrupt elections – not the voting process itself, but the all of the systems associated with balloting. Voting registration and records, and election-night reporting – the kind of stuff foreshadowed by hacks in Illinois and Arizona.

King said it would be difficult for hackers to do permanent damage to these systems because of redundancies and security checks built into them. “It’s usually a short-term process that typically doesn’t impact the final canvass and certification of the election. It just makes for some confusion and anxiety,” he said.

— And then there are attempts to alter the outcomes of elections. Possible? Perhaps. Probable – especially at a national level? No.

Again, the 18th century origins of voting in the United States are a low-tech advantage when it comes to cyber-security. Elections fall under the control of states, which hand most of those duties to officials in more than 3,000 counties.

That can get messy when we decide who can cast ballots and who can’t. Witness the current fights over voter ID laws. But it’s a tough system to rig.

“It’s so fractured, and in many cases works against good election principles,” King said. “But in some cases, and I think with the issue of security — promulgating an error, much less an intentional threat, among these various systems is just a logistical impossibility.”

For that same reason, King – and perhaps Secretary of State Brian Kemp as well – is skeptical that federal oversight of the nation’s election systems is a non-starter.

The beast is simply too large and multi-headed. And that’s a good thing. So keep calm and carry on.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.