The voting environment in America has been forever changed! That’s because the significant vulnerability of the country’s election systems and fear of election “interference” by foreign or domestic operatives – are genuine.
With midterm elections only seven months away, this situation weighs heavily on the minds of both candidates and public officials responsible for ensuring secure and accurate election results. While hacking of American voting systems is a relatively new challenge, technical problems caused by the advanced age of most voting machines are not new.
Technology in recent years set the bar for improved voting efficiency by replacing paper ballot systems with electronic voting machines. But the new technology, which does not leave a paper trail, tends to fall short when it comes to security, accuracy and attacks by hackers. Too many voting machines currently in use have not been replaced or updated in more than a decade and a high percentage have exceeded their life expectancy.
With almost irrefutable evidence that Russia hacked into U.S. election systems in 2016 in an attempt to influence the presidential campaign, there is now a concerted effort to address election accuracy. The Department of Homeland Security has warned representatives of each of the 50 states of possible malicious cyberattacks.
One meager attempt to arm election officials nationwide with tools to combat cyberattacks was the recent passage by Congress of the omnibus spending bill. It includes funding for securing digital election systems. Some fear it may be too late – and the $380 million allocated is certainly too little – to address every system in the country. The money, however, is earmarked for making security improvements, implementing cybersecurity guidelines and replacing outdated voting machines. One looming problem, however, is the fact that funding allocations are based on population, not on need.
Election cybersecurity has been acknowledged as a significant threat. Yet, an updated version of the Secure Elections Act has gained little traction in Congress. The bill addresses ways to deal with the vulnerability of America’s election systems, threats to voter registration and personal voter information. The bill also addresses social media campaigns waged by foreign operatives featuring false election information. It provides funding to states through a grant program.
The gravity of election system hackings was the subject of an open letter to American voters circulated recently by top election officials of the Department of Homeland Security and national organizations that deal with election issues. The letter acknowledged that efforts to modernize cybersecurity are necessary to protect against interference by foreign operatives. It explained that the task will require upgrading technology and investing in experienced cyber security staff. Election officials agree that such an effort must be continuous and will “carry a significant price tag.”
Already, many local officials are trying to secure election systems before the November general election. When the Minnesota legislature approved creating a $7 million grant to help county and city officials purchase new voting equipment, the applications flooding in doubled the available amount of funding. Ohio’s Secretary of State is urging state legislators to find $118 million to fund new voting equipment. Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, is trying to purchase new voting machines to replace 850 touchscreen machines purchased 13 years ago. New machines are needed to comply with a state directive mandating that new voting machines have paper trails that can be verified.
In Hunt County, Texas, the elections administrator has requested $1.5 million from county coffers for new voting machines. New York’s governor has asked for $5 million to strengthen cyber protections and provide cyber risk vulnerability assessments for states and counties. Louisiana’s Secretary of State plans to ask the state for $50 million in funding to purchase new voting machines.
It would be almost impossible to find a citizen or taxpayer who doubts the need to upgrade the country’s election system equipment. It is critical to preserve the integrity of all elections and our democracy. The problem, however, is that securing funding in time to ensure voting safety in November simply may not be possible.