Activists to Congress: Secure Elections or Risk a Repeat of 2016

voting systems, security
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / WhoWhatWhy (CC BY-SA 2.0) See complete attribution below.
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The 2020 election could be vulnerable to another attack by hostile foreign actors if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) continues to block election security legislation. Election integrity activists are urging Congress to take action after a bombshell report by the Senate Intelligence Committee found widespread attacks by the Russian government in the 2016 election.

The Senate report detailed Russia’s far-reaching efforts to destabilize US democracy and get Donald Trump elected. Although the committee saw no evidence indicating that Russia had changed the actual vote tallies in the 2016 election, Vladimir Putin’s regime targeted all 50 states by researching “general election-related web pages, voter ID information, election system software, and election service companies.” Democrats in Washington have reached a roadblock in the Senate that has election integrity experts and grassroots organizers worried about its implications for 2020.

Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, told WhoWhatWhy that the report proves that there can no longer be a dispute as to whether Russia actually interfered in the 2016 election.

Schneider said that voting systems, the pieces that tabulate the vote, and voter registration databases need to be made resilient moving forward.

“That means you have to be able to monitor the systems, detect that something has gone wrong, and recover,” she said, adding that voter-marked paper ballots are “the only way to do that.”

Schneider also called for “uniform federal standards coupled with federal funding,” in light of the 2016 attack on US democracy.

Congress appropriated $380 million in grant money in 2018 for states to shore up their cybersecurity and replace vulnerable voting machines, but the report placed responsibility on state governments to take the lead in conducting elections.

“DHS and other federal government entities [should] remain respectful of the limits of federal involvement in state election systems,” the report, led by a Republican majority, recommended.

Schneider argued that the congressional funding should only be the beginning. “I want people to understand there are a lot of activities that are going on. There’s been a sea change since 2016 in the election administration world and it went from not thinking that security of elections down at the local level was a priority to [it] being the highest priority,” she said.

Election experts have called for a massive overhaul of election infrastructure to require auditable paper trails after numerous public reports found that many jurisdictions currently have paperless voting equipment. The report estimated that replacing these insecure machines nationwide could cost anywhere from $130 to $400 million, and Democrats argue that Congress should enact federal requirements for states and local jurisdictions to contain the risks posed by voting machines that are provided by private companies.

“Hostile foreign actors are going to interfere in the 2020 election in a way that makes what happened in 2016 look like very small potatoes,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told reporters in a press conference on Tuesday. Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that outdated and insecure voting machines around the country could not present “a riper target for hackers, and that problem is from sea to shining sea.”

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Wyden renewed calls for a federal response to secure election infrastructure, writing in his minority view in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report that “[if] there was ever a moment when Congress needed to exercise its clear constitutional authorities to regulate elections, this is it.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller warned Congress in a seven-hour-long hearings marathon that Russian interference was not a one-off: “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign,” Mueller told Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday.

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) released a joint statement with DHS and others after the report was published, promising to work with states “to secure the nation’s election infrastructure and combat any foreign interference to protect the 2020 elections.”

“[DHS] and state and local elections officials have dramatically changed how they approach election security, working together to bridge gaps in information sharing and shore up vulnerabilities. The progress they’ve made over the last three years is a testament to what we can accomplish when we give people the opportunity to be part of a solution,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement after the report was published.

Protecting Our Vote 2020

Officials from DHS told the Committee during its investigation that Russians gained access to and learned “about the environment … what systems are interconnected, probing, the type of intelligence preparation of the environment that you would expect from an actor like the Russians.

“But the problem, as I see it, is not that there hasn’t been a lot accomplished since 2016 but there’s still an enormous amount to do, and that our election infrastructure has been woefully underfunded for decades,” Schneider said.

With the apparent intent by Congress to place the responsibility of securing elections on states and local jurisdictions, some look to Colorado as an example. The state became the first to implement risk-limiting audits statewide, and allows voting by mail to expand voter choice. California, Rhode Island, and Virginia have also taken the lead in shoring up election security through risk-limiting audits.

“Just because the risk is out there doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. But if it does happen, election officials need to have the processes in place that can demonstrate that they can recover from something,” Schneider said.


The photo illustration above was created by WhoWhatWhy from Tanner Lovelace / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0), Eric Gorski / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), Tim Evanson / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), Steven Depolo / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Brian Gudzevich / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), and Zscout370 / Wikimedia.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from The White House / Flickr and Blink O’fanaye / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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