Any entity—individual, nonprofit, company, or government—that has Internet-connected processes must focus on cybersecurity. That is just the current reality. For too long, election administration has only been a focus when something goes spectacularly wrong, like chads not fully detaching from punch cards or non-recountable elections. Those that would disrupt elections today can do so from thousands of miles away and that threat has not diminished. In fact, it is always evolving and reinventing itself. To protect democracy requires a sustained effort by state and local officials with the financial support of the federal government.
Congress will be considering this fall additional grants to states to secure the voting process from outside interference. The needs from local election administrators on the front lines and state election officials are many, and Congress can do much to target future appropriations for maximum impact.
While a full public discussion of each policy consideration would help the public to more fully understand Congressional priorities, the main attention during the upcoming appropriations cycle should center on four main conversations:
- How to prioritize the replacement of outdated technology with voting systems using robust and auditable paper ballots
- Ways to get money to local election administrators
- The appropriate balance between federal and state funding
- Defining what success is
First, federal policy should support paper-based voting systems with robust and auditable paper trails and require rigorous pre- and post-election auditing of various aspects of the elections process. There is a provision in the House-passed fiscal year 2020 financial services appropriation bill, HR3351, that requires states to certify they are only using paper-based voting systems before federal grant money can be spent on other security upgrades. We believe that paper-based systems that allow for some sort of ballot marking device for voters with disabilities are the best option on the market today. BPC further encourages states to prioritize the replacement of older voting systems that do not produce auditable records.
However, restrictions like this one that prioritize the move to paper-based systems over all other security enhancements is an overly prescriptive requirement at this time that will have unintended consequences on the usefulness of federal election security grants ahead of 2020. In this case, it means that states would not be able to access grants to secure voter registration databases and hire additional IT staff, which are likely to have more immediate impacts on repelling foreign interference.
Second, Congress should ensure that federal funding is getting to the front-line election administrators. The equipment, policies, and processes that voters interact with when casting a ballot are administered locally. In too many states, election officials at the local level report that they have received none of their state’s share of the $380 million sent in 2018. This needs to change.
Congress can require that a percentage of the funding be passed through from states to local jurisdictions. However, the federal funding should not go directly to local jurisdictions. It is hard to conceive of an effective program that requires the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which administers federal election security grants, to work with thousands of local election jurisdictions. Some of those jurisdictions are incredibly small and would have a difficult time complying with the numerous requirements that come with federal dollars.
Local officials could use the money to address vulnerabilities such as:
- IT and cybersecurity limitations
- Physical security of election equipment
- Auditing the elections process
- Hiring security-focused staff
While effective investments have been made federally and at the state-level over the past two years, it is time to create a structure that increases the chance that the front-line election administrators have what they need to run a secure election.
Third, any discussion of additional federal funding for elections should include a look at the states’ share of the investment. Election improvement grants to date have come with a mandatory 5% match by the states, and it is not unreasonable to consider an increase in the match from states to access the federal funds. State and local policymakers are usually eager to access federal funds to improve election security and are seeking larger appropriations and a more reliable long-term semi-regular funding mechanism. They need to step up as well. Moreover, states should not expect continued federal resources to cover all necessary capital upgrades. These cannot be the sole responsibility of the federal government.
Finally, policymakers from both parties and at all levels of government must together define what “success” means for federal election security grants. Too many have argued that a lack of overt interference in 2018 represents success that means further federal involvement is unnecessary.
Congress agrees that there was interference in the elections process in 2016. The recent Senate Intelligence Committee report about the efforts of foreign governments to infiltrate the election administration process is among the most in-depth and bipartisan examinations of the 2016 election. The federal government’s designation of elections as critical infrastructure in January 2017 and the work by the Department of Homeland Security since are relatively unknown success stories for how the federal government can work with states and localities on policy. Yet none of these successes means that the work is done or that the federal government’s role is diminished going forward.
In the context of election security grants, success could be shown through
- The number of jurisdictions brought up to a baseline IT infrastructure, participating in cybersecurity trainings, and implementing cybersecurity best practices.
- The number jurisdictions using the money to purchase and roll out voting systems with auditable paper and performing audits.
- A new metric on intergovernmental coordination to secure elections that builds a bipartisan, united front about the fundamental need to protect our democratic ideals from outside influence.
Congress can come together this fall to take a step forward in securing our elections. It means stepping away from some well-worn talking points and working in the areas where common ground can be achieved. This fall’s process to fund the federal government may one day be looked at as the beginning of a coherent national strategy on elections. I hope it is.