In a joint statement issued on Election Day, the Departments of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security issued a dire warning: As the 2020 election approaches, we should expect that “Russia, China, Iran and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions.”
The U.S. Constitution established a system of representative democracy in which we, the citizens, have the responsibility and the right to elect the individuals who will write and enforce our laws. Elections are the bedrock of that system, and today they are under attack.
Over the course of several years, reports from organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences, the Brennan Center for Justice and the League of Women Voters have identified clear vulnerabilities in our election infrastructure and have offered suggestions to address these issues. With less than a year until the 2020 elections, few states have taken sufficient action.
In response to growing concerns, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a series of bills designed to improve the security of federal elections, including requiring a voter-verifiable paper record of each cast vote, a post-election audit to confirm that votes were counted correctly and enhanced cybersecurity protocols to protect voter registration information. Unfortunately, these bills remain stalled in the U.S. Senate.
The budget process offers one final opportunity for timely action. Both the House and Senate have proposed additional money for election security, but their respective recommendations must be reconciled and added to the short-term spending bill before Nov. 21, when a vote is required to avoid a government shutdown.
The House bill allocates $600 million for election security. The Senate version calls for only $250 million. Both proposals fall short of the Brennan Center’s estimate that adequate protection of our elections will require $2.2 billion over the next five years. Additionally, the House bill would require states to use this money first to replace any voting systems that do not use a voter-verified paper ballot, while the Senate version does not include this restriction.
We are calling on Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins to support at least $600 million in election security funding and to adopt the House provision requiring paper ballots first. We are also urging Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden to stand firmly behind these provisions during budget negotiations.
Paper ballots, like those used in Maine, provide a necessary, tangible record of each vote. Last week, voters in 11 other states cast ballots using equipment with no paper trail, leaving voters and election officials with no recourse when election outcomes are challenged. While efforts are underway to replace these machines, experts predict that 16 million voters may still be using paperless voting equipment in 2020. Additional federal funding can speed up the process of replacing paperless voting machines.
Only 24 states are on track to implement a post-election audit of the 2020 election, and just a handful of those states will be using the risk-limiting protocols recommended by experts. Most paper ballots are scanned and counted electronically. While these systems are well tested, undetected programming errors or well-masked hacks could affect election outcomes. Maine and other states without audit protocols must move quickly to develop and implement a robust post-election audit to detect and correct any false outcomes and this additional federal money would help.
While Maine follows expert recommendations to keep voting equipment off the internet, voter registration systems and other aspects of election administration are necessarily online. States increasingly need expert cybersecurity staff in order to rapidly respond to cyber threats as they occur.
In some ways, we are lucky here in Maine. The Maine Secretary of State’s office has a strong record of well-managed elections. But evidence of past performance is not sufficient protection against unpredictable future threats.
And we have to care about elections in other states, as well. Any disruption of the process or interference with the legitimate outcome in important federal races undermines our confidence in our shared civic enterprise. We can and should do more.
Elections these days are high-stakes contests, where malicious actors are willing and able to create chaos. Our national leaders must take action to help us secure our elections and defend our system. A federal allocation of at least $600 million to support state election security efforts, including prioritizing system improvements that require paper ballots, would be a good start.
Jill Ward is president of the League of Women Voters of Maine.