The independent and bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission in February 2021 voted to adopt a new set of voting equipment standards. These guidelines were years—if not decades—in the making. Despite the long and rocky path to adoption, the new standards are a welcome improvement to federal standards and incorporate the needs of multiple constituencies.
Voting systems are the foundation of our voting process, and voter preference and security expectations have changed dramatically over the past two decades. These standards update requirements for cybersecurity, accessibility, and usability that will improve the voting experience. Here’s how.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires standardized, federal guidelines for voting systems used in federal elections. The first set of Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, ‘VVSG 1.0,’ were adopted by the EAC in 2005. The guidelines were intended to update and enhance existing voting systems by increasing security requirements, ensuring functionality, and expanding access for individuals living with disabilities—in line with the new federal election law.
The VVSG is the federal government’s way to express its preferences for voting system technology. While voluntary, 38 states and DC embed the EAC’s guidelines into state statutes. The market for voting systems is incredibly small, “characterized by a consolidated, highly concentrated market dominated by a few major vendors.” Manufacturers cannot produce hardware designed for 50 completely different sets of requirements. That’s why manufacturers look to the VVSG as the baseline when creating voting systems.
The VVSG is intended to keep U.S. voting systems up to date with modern technology. Bureaucratic red tape and an under-resourced EAC have hindered that expectation. Aside from a few minor, clarifying changes made to the VVSG in 2015, the guidelines had not been fully updated since they were first adopted in 2005. The adoption of ‘VVSG 2.0’ this year must bridge a 15-year technology gap.
One aspect of the VVSG has become a recent source of controversy: whether disabled wireless hardware should be allowed to remain in voting systems.
VVSG 1.0 allowed wireless connections in voting technology. In response to concerns from cybersecurity experts that wireless connections make a machine vulnerable to interference, the EAC added a provision in VVSG 2.0 that prohibits voting systems from establishing wireless connections.
The debate now is not whether wireless connections should be allowed, but how specifically they should be prevented. VVSG 2.0 allows wireless hardware to remain in the voting system, so long as it is disabled. After the EAC clarified this rule on January 29, industry activists sounded the alarm. They argued that leaving any wireless hardware—that is, any physical piece of technology that enables a device to connect to the internet—in the machine opens it up to malicious actors.
On the surface, this reasoning makes sense. If we want to prevent voting systems from making wireless connections, removing any wireless hardware seems like an easy solution – right? Not quite.
There is limited yearly demand for new voting hardware and only a handful of vendors dominating the market. This means that competition and technological progress are constrained, thereby increasing costs and impeding security. Traditionally, election offices engage in an ‘end-to-end’ partnership with vendors, in which one vendor supplies the software, hardware, and ongoing support for a voting system. To mitigate the high cost and inflexibility of the end-to-end approach, election officials have begun to embrace a hybrid model in which commercial off-the-shelf technology complements specialized voting systems. Not only is this approach cheaper, but by equipping election offices with the latest technology it is also more secure. If the 15-year wait for new standards is any indication, cybersecurity in election standards lags far behind that of the private market.
Off-the-shelf technology is critical to an efficient and secure elections ecosystem. But as VotingWorks’ Ben Adida emphasizes, “the cost of enforcing ‘no wifi hardware’ would be, without exaggeration, equivalent to banning off-the-shelf hardware.” Almost all commercially available hardware is wifi-enabled, so banning this technology from being present in elections systems (even when it has been disabled) would require costly, specialized technology that often lacks the latest security features.
The EAC’s new guidelines anticipated this consequence. In response to pushback against their wireless hardware allowance, they explained that “a blend of mitigation controls … manage risk when complete elimination of wireless hardware is unattainable.” The thorough, defense-in-depth approach of VVSG 2.0 dramatically enhances security requirements without impeding the ability of election officials to do their jobs.
Election systems will continue to improve and innovate. The EAC must be better at keeping pace of change. With four commissioners and an increase in funding, the testing and certification of voting systems—and potentially other aspects of the election process—should be a key EAC priority. These guidelines are an important and helpful step towards ensuring that our elections are modernized, accessible, and secure.