The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: How Polling Infrastructure is Failing America’s Voters

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Staff Sgt. Travis Bingham, 20th Fighter Wing, registers for an absentee ballot Dec. 20 to vote in the 2008 elections. According to Major Vincent Falls, Shaw voting assistance officer, voters should register at least 60 days prior to any election to ensure they receive their absentee ballot in time for their vote to be received and counted. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Henry Hoegen)

As the 2018 midterms loom large, many candidates and political organizations have worked tirelessly to get out the vote. Voting is the most direct way American citizens enact change and shape the direction of the country. Our democracy relies on this confidence in our electoral institutions.

Yet how can citizens be certain that their vote will not be tampered with or compromised? The Russian hackings of elections in 21 U.S. states during the 2016 Presidential election demonstrated the fragility of America’s polling systems. After two years to practice, it’s possible that hackers will be even more successful this November. Increasing prospects of interference combined with a fragile, aging polling infrastructure, has created a sentiment that voters can no longer assume that their vote will be counted accurately and fairly.

Despondency is not the answer. Action is. The Center for American Progress has outlined a seven-point plan to fortify election systems using a standardized system that can be tailored to each state. The Center’s recommendations, echoed by the Committee on House Administration’s Election Security Update, primarily detailed voter-verified paper trails, post-election audits, and cybersecurity standards for voting registration systems. These steps are in some ways very forward-looking and in other ways seemingly regressive. The call for backup paper ballots, for example, asks polling organizations to look back toward a less digitalized world. Yet each recommendation would help American voting systems become more secure. Without implementing these policies, America’s voting systems will continue to be susceptible to hacking, thus undermining the roots of our democracy for decades to come.

A paper trail of each vote across the country is at the heart of the solution. Paper backup ballots are the only way to truly track voter intent in the event that electronic data is accessed and altered. After Russian agents targeted the electoral systems of 21 states, and very likely gained entry to Illinois’s system, the necessity of having backup ballots to conduct post-election audits cannot be overstated.

Post-election audits are urgent for similar reasons. If a particular state or precinct has been targeted, it’s vital that election officials learn of the breach, recount votes, and fortify their systems for the future. Post-election audits should be mandatory, thorough, and by hand, since hackers have the ability to be subtle and therefore undetected, which is the most dangerous threat of all.

Cybersecurity standards for voting registration systems are another vital step toward securing the right to vote. Hackers may be able to access voter registration records, create discrepancies, and delete voters from the rolls. If this problem were to occur, many voters could show up at the polls and be turned away, especially in states that have strict voter registration laws. Potential solutions include cybersecurity training for election officials and regular tests to ensure a system has not been compromised.

"Without implementing these policies, America’s voting systems will continue to be susceptible to hacking, thus undermining the roots of our democracy for decades to come."

A few states have been proactive about revamping their election systems before the midterms, including Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Election Task Force has worked tirelessly to combat problems such as inaccurate voter rolls, train poll operators, and authorize risk-limiting audits. Rhode Island is also working with the Department of Homeland Security to protect its database of registered voters. The state has invested in brand new voting machines, which were purchased leading up to the 2016 election. In terms of the three goals laid out earlier, Rhode Island is adhering to these standards: required post-election audits, paper backup ballots, and securing its registration database. Nellie Gorbea, Rhode Island’s Secretary of State and Chief Election Official has been adamant about fortifying Rhode Island’s election systems. This has allowed Rhode Island to lead the way in making cybersecurity and election security a priority. However, Rhode Island leaves its elections vulnerable by allowing absentee ballots to be returned electronically. This practice renders post-election audits less accurate and more vulnerable to discrepancies.

Florida has one of the most antiquated voting systems in the country, which might be unsurprising after the state’s electoral issues in 2000. While Florida no longer uses butterfly ballots, the state still received a failing grade on its polling practices from the Center for American Progress. State officials refused to provide the Center with pertinent information, so the cybersecurity measures taken to protect the voter registration database are largely unknown. However, even just focusing on the other two key requirements, Florida has voting machines throughout the state that do not provide paper ballots as backups, nor does the state require post-election audits. Even when audits are conducted, they can be either by hand, which is much more secure, or electronically, which is susceptible to tampering. Florida has acquired millions of dollars in federal funds from the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to combat its security problems; however, Florida Secretary of State, Ken Detzner, has made it very difficult for counties dependent on this money to receive it. Florida is a large state with many vulnerabilities, and even with nearly 19.2 million dollars in aid, fixing this system will be a lengthy and difficult task.

Overall, states should follow these guidelines in order to secure their election systems against hacking. However, because electoral systems are a responsibility delegated to the states under the Constitution, there are many inconsistencies among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Most federal legislation concerning election systems cannot be binding, and state legislatures can do as they please. The vulnerability of any individual state renders our entire electoral system unsafe, so unless the states band together and adopt the same system, potential hacking will continue to be a threat during election season.

Our voting systems, one of the fundamental building blocks of our democracy, are vulnerable to hacking and subsequent demoralization. Many voters no longer show up to the polls because they fear that their votes won’t be counted or that the election is rigged. According to data from the University of Virginia, only half of Americans believe our elections are “free and open.” NPR reports that one-third of Americans believe a foreign power will “tamper with the votes cast to change the results” in the midterms. If this pattern continues and voters continue to be discouraged by the lack of accountability for their votes, it’s possible that voter turnout will drop in coming years. Once the trust of voters is lost, it will be hard to gain back, and hackers will only continue to be more sophisticated in their efforts to undermine our free and fair election process. States must act quickly to ensure accurate election results in the future, safeguarding our democracy against those who wish to weaponize the will of the people.

Photo: Registering to Vote

About the Author

Zander Blitzer '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Zander can be reached at alexandra_blitzer@brown.edu

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