There are two important pieces of voting news coming out of Illinois today, one good and the other ominous.
First, the good - and it’s very good news indeed. The Illinois Senate voted 48-0 this morning for a Common Cause-backed automatic voter registration (AVR) bill that could modernize and add tens of thousands of people to the state’s voter rolls.
The bill would add qualified citizens to the rolls automatically when they do business with any of several state agencies. It is modeled after legislation first approved two years ago in Oregon and now on the books in California, West Virginia and Vermont; Connecticut also has adopted AVR but did so by administrative action.
This is the second consecutive year that AVR legislation has attracted strong bipartisan support in the Illinois legislature. Lawmakers passed an AVR bill last year but it was vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner. This year’s version has been tweaked to address Rauner’s stated concerns and should get a boost from the Senate’s veto-proof vote; the legislation now goes to the Illinois House.
The other Illinois story making election news today involves a Russia-based threat to our democracy that may be even more serious than last year’s invasions of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s computer systems and the possible collusion between Russian hackers and the Trump for President campaign.
The Illinois Board of Elections reports that computer hackers traced to an internet address the FBI has linked to the Russian government poked around inside the state’s voter records for nearly three weeks before being detected. The intruders gained access to personal information of about 80,000 Illinois voters, including their Social Security and driver’s license numbers.
“If they know how to operate through our system, not only at our state level, but through our municipalities, there’s no telling what they can do,” state Sen. Michael Hastings told Illinois Public Radio.
The Russians who hacked into the Clinton campaign computers last year and then leaked information embarrassing to the former secretary of state may have persuaded some Americans - indirectly - to change their votes. But there’s no indication, at least not yet, that the hackers penetrated U.S. voting or vote counting systems and manipulated vote totals.
The security breach in Illinois suggests we might not be so lucky next time. And no less an expert than former CIA Director James Woolsey argues that we’d better get busy – now – to shore up our election systems.
Interviewed several weeks ago on CNN, Woolsey warned that before next year’s Senate and House contests, Russian-backed hackers may figure out how to penetrate U.S. voting machines and change the votes they record.
“There’s a real danger here because 25 percent, approximately, of our voting machines in the United States do not have paper backups,” Woolsey said. “So if the electronics have been tampered with, you will never know and you can’t do a recount. We have got to get that fixed.”
Common Cause is one of a handful of organizations that has been sounding alarms for years about the vulnerability of U.S. election systems. You can learn more about the dangers and how we can remove them, here, and here.
Issues: Voting and Elections