There’s something interesting on the horizon in Ohio (and possibly elsewhere) in this era of justifiable fears over hackers or other malcontents disrupting the election. Everyone seems to agree that we need to “secure” the integrity of the election, but there doesn’t seem to be any broad consensus as to what that means and who is going to do the “securing.” In the Buckeye State it might involve literally calling in the National Guard if a new proposal goes into place. (Government Executive)

When Ohio’s governor activated the National Guard to protect his state’s voting machines from “hacking,” responses ran from alarm to confusion to mockery. Practically and legally, there’s very little the Guard can do about election-related activities. But if proposed legislation becomes law the military’s role in election activities could change.

Officials have said the Ohio National Guard cyber unit, one of 23 in existence, will be testing various election-related computer systems, although it remains unclear just what that means. Penetration testing on notoriously insecure voting machines? Probing Ohio election-board databases, the kind that have already been targeted this election cycle? We asked; the Ohio National Guard declined to comment.

What’s more clear, thanks to the U.S. Constitution, is that state governments are responsible for keeping elections free of interference, and may  activate their National Guard units for various things.

Before we get too carried away here, what’s being suggested in Ohio isn’t a case of tanks and Humvees filled with armed storm troopers lined up outside of all the polling places. As the author of the article, Patrick Tucker, correctly notes, that would be a violation of long standing federal law.

Whoever, being an officer of the Army or Navy, or other person in the civil, military, or naval service of the United States, orders, brings, keeps, or has under his authority or control any troops or armed men at any place where a general or special election is held, unless such force be necessary to repel armed enemies of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both; and be disqualified from holding any office of honor, profit, or trust under the United States

So it’s not troops outside the schools and churches where the voting machines tend to be installed. But what they are talking about is employing the Ohio National Guard cyber unit to investigate and secure election data from attacks by hackers. That doesn’t seem to be any sort of infraction under the law, so why not?

After all, what are the real threats we’re worried about in terms of election tampering? Showing up to physically mess with the machines or the bags of ballots or the voters themselves would require an army of thousands and they would be extremely visible as well as vulnerable to law enforcement intrusion on their efforts. Thankfully there is zero indication that any such army exists. And if you’re talking about voter intimidation at the polls, such as the now infamous scene of New Black Panthers in Philadelphia a few years back, the local police should be able to handle that without calling in the cavalry. (Assuming they are instructed to do so by municipal leaders of course.)

The bigger threat to be dealt with is the possibility of the aforementioned wide scale hacking to mess with the vote totals or the reporting of results. Perhaps even more of a threat is the idea that attackers might attempt to shut down the entire internet as we saw a few weeks ago or, alternatively, take down the power grid or other infrastructure on election day. That’s a much cruder form of attack, but if the disruption was sufficiently broad in scope it could stop a lot of the voting from taking place and call into question the validity of the results.

But again, that’s really not a problem for the National Guard, the Army or the Marines to deal with using armed troops at the polling places. We’re going to have to rely on the FBI, DHS and national intelligence agencies to protect us from these sort of threats.

God help us all.