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On Election Security, More Transparency Can Rebuild Voters’ Trust

The Brief

Congress has finally held an all-members election security briefing by top Department of Homeland Security and federal law enforcement officials to learn about progress made since 2016 and threats to future elections.

Congress has finally held an all-members election security briefing by top Department of Homeland Security and federal law enforcement officials to learn about progress made since 2016 and threats to future elections. It was a valuable, if overly-delayed, first step for Congress to fully understand the vulnerabilities our democracy faces. But why was it all done in secret?

Elections are the foundation of American democracy, and they must be free, fair, secure, and accessible, for all eligible voters. They must also be as transparent as possible so that voters have confidence in the legitimacy of the process that the government has designed to elect the people’s representatives to that government.

Congress missed a rare opportunity to improve public confidence in election security.

There will always be a balance to strike between security and transparency when it comes to elections. Voters want to know that the system is free and fair, and election administrators will never share information about the process that could lead to exploitation by foreign actors. So how do we get to a secure and fair election?

Voter registration is one example of the balance between the security and transparency priorities. To secure the voting process, eligible citizens in all states—except North Dakota—must be registered to vote in order to receive and cast a ballot. Registering voters allows election officials to verify an individual’s eligibility, ensuring that each voter meets constitutional and state legal requirements to vote and only receives one ballot. For transparency, states then make the voter rolls—and in many cases the database of election history—accessible to the public. That way the public knows who is eligible to vote and for which races they can and did cast a ballot.

It is no different when it comes to the balance policymakers must strike to defend the election process from outside intrusion. No one expects states and counties to defend themselves alone against foreign attacks in any other context. A military attack on any one state by a foreign adversary would elicit a response from the United States military, not that one state’s National Guard. It should be no different for attacks on any state’s electoral process, which local and state election administrators have long had to defend by themselves.

The federal government has now identified a role for itself in securing American elections. First, DHS designated the elections process as critical infrastructure after the 2016 election. Then the states received a total of $380 million in federal grants in early 2018 for election security. It was the first substantial appropriation of new funding for election administration since the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002, although much of the money was disbursed to states too late to be spent before the 2018 election.

Because the federal government has a role in protection our elections process, the American public has a right, within reason, to know what it is doing. Unfortunately, the public rarely hears about the improvements made using federal grants, or where more funding is needed to ensure a free and fair process. No one is asking the government to divulge state secrets related to our defense posture. But the public has reasonable questions about election integrity and whether states are being responsible and efficient with the federal funds.

The facts are these: elections are more secure than ever, the federal funding has helped but much more is needed, and the public is mostly unaware of both the great progress made and remaining vulnerabilities.

Government at all levels must act quickly to rebuild Americans’ trust in the system, which has been shaken by recent events. Without action, we leave open a door for candidates of any political party to irresponsibly cast doubt on election results and further erode confidence in one of the central tenets of our democracy: the idea that our votes count.

Confidence in the legitimacy of the process requires a public discussion about the priorities we have for the election system, from accessibility to security, and how to best balance them. Congress is well-positioned to lead such a discussion. Instead, the House and Senate heard about election security behind closed doors. It was an unforced error when Congress could have easily included a public component to last week’s security briefing.

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