New election systems use vulnerable software
WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania’s message was clear: The state was taking a big step to keep its elections from being hacked in 2020. In April 2018, its top election official told counties they had to update their systems. So far, nearly 60% have taken action, with $14.15 million of mostly federal funds helping counties buy new systems.
But many of these new systems run on old software that will soon be outdated and more vulnerable to hackers.
An Associated Press analysis found that like many counties in Pennsylvania, the vast majority of 10,000 election jurisdictions nationwide use Windows 7 or an older operating system to create ballots, program voting machines, tally votes and report counts.
Windows 7 reaches its “end of life” Jan. 14, meaning Microsoft stops support and producing “patches” to fix vulnerabilities, which hackers exploit. In a statement to the AP, Microsoft said it will offer continued Windows 7 security updates for a fee through 2023.
Critics say the situation is an example of what happens when private companies determine the security level of election systems with a lack of federal requirements or oversight.
It’s unclear whether the often hefty expense of security updates would be paid by vendors operating on thin profit margins or cash-strapped jurisdictions. It’s also uncertain if a version running on Windows 10, which has more security features, can be certified and rolled out in time for primaries.
The AP found multiple battleground states affected, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Arizona and North Carolina. Also affected are Michigan, which recently acquired a new system, and Georgia, which will announce its new system soon.
U.S. officials have warned that Russia, China and other nations are trying to influence the 2020 elections.
Officials in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona say they have discussed the issue with vendors. Pennsylvania elections spokeswoman Wanda Murren said contract language allows such a software upgrade for free.
But Susan Greenhalgh, policy director for the advocacy group National Election Defense Coalition, said even the best scenario has election administrators preparing for primaries while trying to upgrade their systems, which is “crazy.”