Voter confidence took a hit during the contentious 2020 election cycle. There are real discussions to be had around what the most urgent vulnerabilities are in U.S. elections today. However, one thing is abundantly clear: Congress must play a vital role in bolstering the security and integrity of our elections.
The House is set to vote this week on a wide-ranging set of proposals aimed at transforming how elections are administered with the For The People Act of 2021, or H.R. 1. Due to the decentralized nature of voting, Congress must proceed cautiously when mandating sweeping changes to states’ long-standing election administration policies. It is crucial that any changes made will strengthen the actual security of the reformed process as well as its integrity. Changes should bolster voters’ confidence that the new procedures will yield trustworthy results.
The Bipartisan Policy Center has endorsed many of the election integrity and security provisions in H.R. 1, including mandating and funding absentee ballot tracking programs and voter-verifiable paper ballots. However, some provisions in the House bill are potentially impractical, misguided, and risk perpetuating the chronic underfunding of election infrastructure.
Below are some of the well-intentioned provisions that, with modification at the federal level or consideration in state legislatures, would shore up both the security and integrity of our elections.
Absentee Ballot Tracking Program
A record 46% of voters nationwide cast absentee or by-mail ballots in the 2020 election cycle. H.R. 1 would make many of the state-level policies that facilitated this increase the national standard. To help cultivate public confidence in mail-in voting options, Section 1622 would require states to establish programs for voters to track and confirm the status of their absentee ballots.
BPC considers absentee ballot tracking systems to be a best practice for mail-in voting. Allowing voters to confirm their ballot was received and processed (or made aware of any issues),will combat uncertainty and increase voter confidence.
While BPC believes most election policy changes should come at the state level, H.R. 1 includes a specific authorization to federally fund this measure. States would establish their own ballot tracking programs (within the statutory guidelines) and the federal government would cover some, or all, of the cost. H.R. 1 caps funding for absentee tracking programs at $3,000 total per jurisdiction. For larger jurisdictions or jurisdictions with no existing program in place, this figure is likely to fall short of the total cost burden.
Confidence in electoral outcomes diminished significantly in 2020, but ballot tracking programs allow Congress to materially improve perceptions of security without forcing major changes as unfunded mandates.
Voter-Verified Paper Ballots and Hand Recounts
Despite the rapid movement towards absentee voting, most Americans still voted in-person during the 2020 election.. H.R. 1 seeks to preserve the security of in-person voting by requiring all voting systems used in federal elections to produce voter-verifiable paper ballots.
In a voter-verifiable paper ballot system, voters mark and verify paper copies of their ballots before inserting them into a scanning machine at their polling place. Voters can mark these ballots by hand or with a machine called a “ballot-marking device” that prints a human-readable ballot. The scanner tallies the votes, and the paper ballot is preserved in case of discrepancies or recounts. BPC advocates for voter-verifiable paper ballots as an effective way to increase public confidence in election outcomes.
Voter-verifiable paper ballots are widely recognized among elections and cybersecurity experts as a best practice for election security. While Congress was smart to mandate and provide grants for paper ballots in H.R. 1, the bill perpetuates some fallacies about how paper ballots should be used in vote counts and recounts.
The claim that hand counts are always more accurate than computerized rescans is not true. While having the option to hand recount a paper ballot is essential, H.R. 1 would require paper ballots to be hand counted for recounts or audits of federal elections. Hand counts, especially in larger jurisdictions, are expensive, logistically challenging, and are not always the preferred option. State and local governments would bear much, if not all, of the resource burden under the House bill—something already cash-strapped jurisdictions are not equipped to bear.
H.R. 1’s voter-verifiable paper ballot requirement and grant program would improve both election integrity and security, but its hand recount mandate could overwhelm under-resourced jurisdictions without heeding improvements to security or integrity.
Physical Security and Cybersecurity
If implemented, H.R. 1’s sweeping changes to election administration would spur a great transformation in our electoral systems. Such upheaval could open the door to interference and undermine the progress made in election security since 2016. The legislation fails to protect the security of our elections systems—especially while they are in flux. Congress must devote attention to election security in equal force to the attention it warrants procedural changes.
The $805 million in election security grants provided by Congress through the U.S. Election Assistance Commission were instrumental in successfully preventing intrusions into voter databases or election infrastructure in 2020. Further, the decision by the outgoing Obama administration in January 2017 to designate elections as critical infrastructure—and the actions of the Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration to develop elections expertise—solidified the federal role for election security. There is still much room for improvement.
H.R. 1 begins to fund some security-related equipment upgrades and training, but it falls short of securing our nation’s vulnerable elections infrastructure. The federal government must take primary responsibility for repelling cyberattacks from foreign adversaries, rather than leaving it to the states, as H.R. 1 does. Cybersecurity and foreign detection are only as good as their weakest link. Intrusions into election infrastructure in California, for example, are not attacks against California. They are attacks against the United States.
Although H.R. 1 improves upon existing structures, ransomware attacks at the local level remain an underestimated concern, and its provisions do not address severe capacity limitations of local election offices. Congress must authorize regularized funding for election security, aimed at repelling foreign intrusion into the voting process. That includes mandating a way to get future funding into the hands of local election officials who are most responsible for the voting infrastructure.
Moreover, the physical security of election infrastructure and the individuals tasked with administering elections came under direct threat in 2020. Election officials felt personally threatened to the point that many ended up with police protection throughout the election cycle. Elections will always promote passion, but the nation faces another underestimated concern: seasoned election officials are seriously considering retiring rather than staying in high-pressure, poorly paid jobs. H.R. 1 fails to address the need to protect the elections community from undue threats, pressure, and interference.
We are at a precarious and consequential moment for election administration in this country. As members of Congress are debating whether to significantly expand voting options on a national scale, state legislatures across the country are backsliding and passing laws that actively restrict voting options in a disenfranchising way—a move that risks eroding voter confidence and the perception of election integrity.
Many of the House bill’s provisions are sensible and would make progress toward ensuring that our elections procedures remain modernized and secure. However, as written, H.R. 1 is an imperfect bill. There are notable concerns related to the resourcing and practicality of these essential integrity and security measures on a federal level. If Congress moves forward with this election administration overhaul, it is important that they take steps to ensure that states have the resources and support they need to hold secure elections that garner public confidence.
While integrity and security are essential, they aren’t the only aspects of H.R. 1 worth examining more closely. You can find BPC’s analysis of H.R. 1’s voter registration provisions here.