In September 2010, the District of Columbia unveiled a pilot project to enable overseas residents and people serving in the military to vote over the Internet, and invited users to test the system. Within 36 hours, University of Michigan computer scientist J. Alex Halderman and his team were able to hack into it, flipping votes to candidates named after famous computers, like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and playing the Michigan fight song, “The Victors,” after every recorded vote. Amazingly, it took two days for election officials in DC to notice the hack and take the system down. The pilot project was eventually scrapped.
Though online voting remains a distant prospect in American politics, this wasn’t the first election system that Halderman hacked. On June 21, 2017, he testified before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in a hearing on “Russian Interference in the 2016 U.S. Elections.” “My conclusion,” Halderman told the committee, “is that our highly computerized election infrastructure is vulnerable to sabotage, and even to cyber-attacks that could change votes.”
“Dr. Halderman, you’re pretty good at hacking voting machines, by your testimony,” Senator Angus King of Maine observed. “Do you think the Russians are as good as you?”
“The Russians have the resources of a nation-state,” Halderman replied. “I would say their capabilities would significantly exceed mine.”
The truth is that the same Republicans who benefited from Russian hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign e-mails in the 2016 election have been trying for years to suppress Democratic-leaning votes. As civil-rights leader Rev. William Barber notes, “Voter suppression hacked our democracy long before any Russian agents meddled in America’s elections.” Since the 2010 election, 22 states—nearly all of them controlled by Republicans—have passed new laws making it harder to vote, which culminated in the 2016 election being the first in more than 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.
According to a new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 12 percent of the electorate in 2016—16 million Americans—encountered a problem voting, including long lines at the polls, difficulty registering, or faulty voting machines. And last year’s election was decided by just 80,000 votes in three states.
Republicans have accelerated their voter-suppression efforts at the state and federal levels in 2017. According to the Brennan Center, 99 bills to limit access to the ballot have been introduced in 31 states this year, and more states have enacted new voting restrictions in 2017 than in 2016 and 2015 combined. Arkansas, Iowa, North Dakota, and Texas passed new voter-ID laws; Georgia made voter registration more difficult; and Montana is in the process of limiting the use of absentee ballots.