As they approach the Nov. 6 midterm vote, federal and state officials fear an election-day nightmare where unofficial results have been altered by hackers, leading to confusion and mistrust of the final result.
The fears come as the U.S. intelligence community has warned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other countries who are trying to influence the 2018 and 2020 elections.
“There is a scenario that you could have where if someone were able to, say, access a Secretary of State website or something like that, they could somehow change results. But it would be unofficial election night reporting,” Jeanette Manfra, an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters Oct. 23.
“Are they actually manipulating the vote tally? No. But you could have confusion and concern.”
While there is no public evidence that hackers will definitively attempt to alter the preliminary results, which are are not connected to the official vote tally, officials say they have prepared for the eventuality that hackers could attempt to cause problems.
"They are just trying to sow discord and chaos,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos told Fifth Domain.
In August, a Russian IP address scanned Vermont’s voter registration database, Condos said.
The scenario has shades of the 2014 presidential vote in Ukraine, when Russian-backed hackers infiltrated the country’s election commission. A virus would have reported that a pro-Russian party won the vote, but it was discovered less than an hour before the result was announced.
“Offenders were trying by means of previously installed software to fake election results in [a] given region and in such a way to discredit general result,” a Ukrainian official told researchers from Harvard.
Federal and local election officials have taken steps to respond to the scenario of the unofficial results being changed on election day.
DHS has conducted workshops with the media to simulate midterm election-day scenarios. Homeland Security officials and Condos said that there has been a significant increase in intelligence sharing and coordination between the federal government and local officials.
Intelligence community monitoring midterms
American intelligence agencies say foreign countries are trying to sow discord and undermine faith in the democratic process, and their midterm activity could be preparation for the 2020 election.
A DHS official told Fifth Domain that the agency is aware foreign adversaries have the capabilities to disrupt election infrastructure.
“Russia’s objectives here are to undermine the system. China’s objectives are to manipulate the system,” Chris Krebs, under secretary at Homeland Security, told reporters Oct. 23.
The intelligence community set up an “election security small group” this May, which monitors foreign influence and feeds information to the FBI and local election officials. The intelligence community believes that it is difficult to compare the threat of election interference in the midterm elections with the 2016 presidential vote, because adversaries and the U.S. government’s tactics have changed.
“Some state and local governments have reported attempts to access their networks, which often include online voter registration databases, using tactics that are available to state and non-state cyber actors,” said an Oct. 19 joint statement from DHS, the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“Thus far, state and local officials have been able to prevent access or quickly mitigate these attempts.”