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Spooky Trends in Election Security

As kids across the country don costumes for a night of trick-or-treating, election administrators are spending the night preparing for elections next week in several states and municipalities. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we vote around Halloween, because there’s much to be scared of. Indeed, voting officials this year are likely to face many tricks including malign foreign influence, outdated voting systems, and the underfunding of election agencies.

Have goosebumps yet?

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A Nightmare Online: Foreign Influence

Earlier this month, Microsoft released a statement detailing cyber-security threats posed by foreign actors. The company observed a threat called Phosphorus, believed to originate from Iran, that initiated thousands of attacks on U.S. presidential campaigns, current and former government officials, journalists, and Iranian expats. Fortunately, it seems only four accounts were compromised and none were associated with presidential campaigns or government officials.

Facebook also announced that it had taken down a collection of networks belonging to Russian and Iranian actors. Facebook explained that it did not remove the pages for content alone, but because they were engaging in “inauthentic behavior” regarding elections. According to Facebook’s head of cyber-security policy, the Russian network had the “hallmarks of a well-resourced operation” with links to organizations known to have interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Both Microsoft and Facebook’s notice of cyber-security threats make one thing clear: America’s elections are the target of malign foreign influence campaigns.

Ghosts of Elections Past: Outdated Voting Machines

The American public demands secure voting systems. Yet, jurisdictions across the country continue to rely on outdated voting machines that are prone to failure and lack durable paper records.

Roughly 12 percent of the population lives in a jurisdiction that uses a completely paperless voting machine.1 Concerns surrounding paperless voting machines are well documented, and security experts argue that a paper trail is essential. It allows voters to check their ballot selections before casting, removes the tallying process from the voting machine, and produces an auditable record other than the voting machine’s memory.

Many states and localities are investing in voting machines with a paper trail. After the 2016 presidential election, both Michigan and Virginia took steps to do away with all remaining paperless voting machines in their states. BPC recognizes the benefits of paper ballots over solely electronic voting. However, even if money were appropriated by federal or state authorities today, the remaining paper-free jurisdictions would not have time to replace all of their machines prior to the 2020 election.

These ghosts of elections past will survive at least one more cycle.

Boo-reaucracy: Gridlock and Chronic Underfunding

Malign foreign influence and outdated voting machines are lurking in the background of America’s elections. But there’s another threat to the haunted house of election security that’s right in our own backyard: American bureaucracy.

There are over 8,000 election jurisdictions in this country with varying access to resources and levels of technological competency. As security threats continue to grow, state and local jurisdictions can’t face them alone. That is where the Election Assistance Commission should come in. The Election Assistance Commission, or EAC, is charged with helping election officials fulfill their responsibilities under the Help America Vote Act, including securing elections against malign foreign interference. However, as BPC has noted, “the EAC received just $7.95 million in FY2019 for general operating support, which represents the lowest amount the Commission has received since its creation in 2004.”

When asked in a House Judiciary Committee hearing if the EAC has enough funding to secure America’s elections, EAC Vice Chair Ben Hovland said:

“Since its inception, the Election Assistance Commission has been kicked around like a political football and we’ve never been empowered or funded in a way to actually help election officials in the way we can.”

The EAC is monstrously underfunded. While 58 percent of Americans support more government funding for election security, the House and Senate continue to go back and forth over election security – trapping the fate of American elections in a bureaucratic tug-of-war. Escaping this political nightmare and truly securing American elections will take concerted and bipartisan effort across all levels of government.

Scary vulnerabilities remain despite the good progress made over the past decade to professionalize election administration and improve election policy in the states. Recognizing these weaknesses is the first step toward exorcising elections of their demons once and for all.


1 The Brennan Center reports that an estimated 16 million Americans (or about 12% of the population) will cast ballots on paperless voting machines in 2020. This estimate is further reinforced by an NCSL publication that details which states continue to rely on paperless voting machines. The proportion of the population of the states noted by the NCSL relative to the national population is also 12%.