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Experts Warn Action is Necessary to Secure American Elections

The secretaries of state of Michigan and Alabama joined election security experts to warn members of Congress that much more must be done to secure American elections by 2020. They appeared before the Congressional House committee that oversees federal elections on May 8 to discuss how to combat foreign interference; aging and insecure voting machines, particularly paperless machines; and the need for post-election audits.

House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) vowed to make election security before the 2020 election a primary focus of the committee. “The risks posed by the vulnerabilities previously exploited still remain,” she said. “No matter your side of the aisle, the oath of upholding democracy as citizens and elected leaders in this nation is fundamental.” Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) warned that election security cannot be a partisan exercise.

There is broad consensus among experts that paperless electronic machines are not secure and should be removed from service as soon as possible.

Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, noted that while significant progress has been made since 2016, 11 states still use paperless electronic machines as the primary polling place equipment in at least some counties and towns and three states -- Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina -- continue to use such systems statewide.

When the Brennan Center surveyed election officials, two-thirds of local officials in 31 states said that they do not have adequate funds to replace equipment by the 2020 election, as mandated, even after the distribution of additional HAVA funds from Congress.

Norden was not joking when he stated in his written testimony that there are more federal regulations for ballpoint pens than there are for voting systems.

Marian Schneider, president of the Verified Voting and former Deputy Secretary for Elections and Administration in the Pennsylvania Department of State, also emphasized the need to replace aging and vulnerable machines with systems that use voter-marked paper ballots, creating a verifiable record.

Committee on House Administration, Majority

In his written testimony, Norden noted that “moving to paper-based systems without using the paper to check the accuracy of electronic totals may be of “limited security value.” Voter-marked paper ballots will only have real security value if they are used to check and confirm electronic tallies.”

Schneider also testified to the need to verify election results with audits. “We leverage the computer speed to count ballots quickly but it’s imperative to check that the computers counted the ballots correctly. We can check election outcomes by auditing -- selecting a random sample of ballots to check the reported results.” Verified Voting and other experts urge widespread adoption of risk-limiting audits as the most efficient and reliable way of checking election results.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, presented five key priorities: replace dangerously outdated voting technologies; limit the use of paperless voting systems; promote research, development, and implementation of risk-limiting audits; commit to long-term funding of U.S. election infrastructure; and return the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) budget to nominal levels.

In her remarks opening the hearing, Rep. Lofgren noted that EAC is operating with half the budget and fewer than half staff than it had 10 years ago.

The secretaries of state of Michigan and Alabama both spoke about the complexity and challenges of administering elections in their states.

“Many of the issues we have discussed today can only be partially addressed at the local level and temporarily with the tools that we have at our disposal,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said. “In many cases, election officials know what they need to do but they cannot afford to do it. The federal government has taken positive steps — such as significantly improving federal, state and local coordination and making more funding available — but we need to do much more.”

Michigan began a pilot project to implement risk-limiting audits in three large cities last year and is expanding its auditing procedures this year.

Benson was quick to note later in the hearing that there must be a sustainable funding source since software updated now will be out-of-date in five years.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill touted record voter participation in the last four elections in Alabama. Since 2014, a photo ID has been required to vote in the state. Merrill also noted that Alabama is creating a pilot program for post-election audits.

In her written testimony, Schneider noted that voting equipment is just “one part of a broad array of election technology infrastructure that includes voter registration databases, internet facing applications such as online voter registration and polling place lookup, network connections between state government and local jurisdictions, the computers that program the voting devices that record and count votes in addition to the voting devices themselves… To the extent that any of these can be compromised or manipulated, can contain errors, or can fail to operate correctly—or at all—this can potentially affect the vote.” 

Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) summarized the expert consensus on election security, seeking verification from the panel of five experts and even pausing to ask them to nod:

“We should get rid of paperless voting machines and move to voting systems with voter-marked paper ballots; update and replace out-of-date computer software in states that are still using, antiquated, and obsolete systems; adopt post-election audits in order to determine if there are strange things going on; and the federal government ought to provide greater cybersecurity resources to help thousands of electoral jurisdictions across the country fortify their cyber defenses and defend the integrity of our elections.”