More than half of Virginians did not vote in Tuesday’s elections. Whether or not you made it to the polls, we all know what’s at stake.
When we leave the polls and receive that simple “I Voted” sticker, we recognize the right we have as citizens to shape our democracy. It’s our say in the policies that govern our country — the laws that shape our schools, our taxes, our health care and more.
No matter how we vote, we all expect our vote to count. That premise is under attack. On Election Day 2019, some powerful federal agencies — the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Agency and the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency — released a highly unusual joint statement warning of security issues in the 2020 presidential and other elections.
“Our adversaries want to undermine our democratic institutions, influence public sentiment, and affect government policies,” the statement said. “Russia, China, Iran, and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions.”
The means include social media campaigns, disinformation operations and cyberattacks on election infrastructure. Our process is dependent on computer systems and information can be compromised. But this is about so much more. The integrity of our democracy is at stake.
Even in the most primitive settings, elections have always been subject to tampering. Look at the tactics that tore apart the validity of the race for the North Carolina 9th Congressional District. A paper absentee ballot scheme by a GOP campaign operative forced the state to toss out a 905-vote Republican victory in November 2018. Ten months and millions of dollars in campaign spending later, voters headed back to the polls in September and elected a different Republican. Old-school fraud in a razor-thin race is a recipe for voter skepticism.
New-school worries can disrupt the process much more quickly. Take Tuesday night, when the Virginia Department of Elections website went haywire. As newsrooms and voters across the state frantically refreshed their computers to follow the results, early returns showed an inaccurate tally of 100% of precincts reporting. The site later went down, with an error message stating: “Due to unforeseen circumstances, we are unable to process your request at this time.” A domino effect ensued for other sites relying on the returns. The state elections website eventually came back up, with a spokesman explaining it was “not an issue from external factors.”
In one local suburban race, a typo caused mayhem. “We continue to follow the 12th District Senate race, where Democrat Debra Rodman is shown with a 38,153 to 34,262 lead over Republican Siobhan Dunnavant — but Rodman’s total reflects 4,600 votes at a precinct where only 1,093 voters cast ballots,” the Henrico Citizen tweeted at 9:04 p.m. About a half hour later, the state elections website corrected the vote total from 4,600 to 460 and Dunnavant ended up retaining her seat.
Perhaps even more worrisome than risks that have been identified, there also remains the unknown — the threats that election and intelligence officials don’t know that they don’t know about. While officials are on the lookout for active hacking attempts, no one is sure that foreign hackers haven’t already planted malware in databases that could manipulate or destroy vote counts in the 2020 elections. And while interference from Russia and China is realized, it’s also possible that state-sanctioned cyberterrorists from someplace like North Korea or even a lone hacker sitting in his basement could be devising attacks on U.S. election databases.
Voter turnout continues to increase, especially as Virginia becomes more of a political bellwether. Tuesday’s high-stakes election — which resulted in Democrats solidifying control of the General Assembly and statewide offices — drew national attention, both in terms of money and effort. As Robert Brink, chairman of the Virginia State Board of Elections, explained in an op-ed in The Times-Dispatch on Nov. 3, the trend for greater participation will continue through 2020. And so will the challenge to secure the ballot box.
“By now, almost all Americans are aware that foreign nation-states attempted to breach the 50 states’ election systems in some way in 2016. We can be certain that foreign actors will continue their attempts to interfere with our election machinery in coming elections. But based on what I’ve seen since my appointment to the State Board of Elections earlier this year, we are well positioned to withstand this challenge.”
We hope so. The integrity of how we choose and conduct our nation’s business is at stake. We urge state and federal leaders to spare no energy protecting our elections. Election insecurity strikes at the soul of our representational government.
— Pamela Stallsmith, Robin Beres and Chris Gentilviso