By Amanda Buchanan
In response to all the hullabaloo around election security lately, NCSL’s The Canvass rushed back from summer vacation to publish a special issue, Security and Elections: What Legislators Need to Know dedicated to the topic.
In our quest to provide legislators and staff with all the pertinent information around the security of our voting systems from the nation’s experts, we found ourselves with more amazing material than could be reasonably accommodated in the confines of one issue.
So here is a response from Doug Lewis—former longtime executive director of the Election Center, which supports the work of local and state election officials. We asked him: Can a presidential election really be hacked? And how do politics come into play regarding election administration?
With a few decades of election administration under his belt, Lewis' response covers everything from recent reports of hacks to voter registration databases to the federal role in elections, voting equipment—and a word of caution about the creep of partisanship into election administration.
Recently the FBI reportedly discovered hackers have broken into the databases for voter registration in two states (Illinois and Arizona) and then some partisan allegations began to sprout that election systems could also be hacked or the Presidential election could be stolen.
While it is serious that voter registration records, with the names and addresses could be obtained by hackers, it is unlikely that having those lists could lead to much that would directly affect an election. They would have voter information and potentially could use that to try to register to vote falsely but that would take live humans, not just some computer connection.
Hacking the voter registration system is unlikely to produce significant election problems but it could affect the personal records of the voters themselves and be used for other purposes. The point here is that no one takes lightly that voter registration records need to be protected and greater efforts need to be taken by state and local governments to assure that security and privacy are maintained.
But could they hack voting systems from some foreign location? Voting equipment is not connected to the internet and there is such a variety of voting equipment, and differences in software and differences in manufacturers’ approaches, that it becomes virtually impossible to hack into voting systems remotely. A hacker would need access to the equipment locally or through the main software.
Even if they hacked the software of the manufacturer, there are enough security protocols and professional administrative practices implemented within the states and local governments that it becomes virtually impossible to hack the software AND have it undiscovered. There are approximately 8,000 separate election jurisdictions that handle a presidential election. A short article does not permit me to get into the whole safety and security of voting systems, but be assured that it is exceedingly difficult to accomplish and to have it affect an election … and be undiscovered.
It would be easier for an invading army to land and take over the nation’s capital than it would be to successfully manipulate the outcome of the presidential election by hacking voting systems. So many locations would need to be involved and so many ballots manipulated and so many election administrators would have to be fooled, that it becomes a virtual impossibility. The genius of American democracy is the significant advantage of having state and local governments run elections rather than a centralized system at the Federal level. It is an added layer of protection for democracy.
What may be more troubling is an organization like Homeland Security trying to declare this as critical infrastructure. The specter of the Federal government controlling all voting devices and the software and all the election officials would be mind boggling and, in my opinion, partisans would not be able to hold themselves accountable and responsible. Eventually it would lead to manipulation to keep political control and that is just not a prospect that ANY presidential agency should be allowed to do.
There is, however, a bi-partisan, federal agency appointed to handle all election administration issues and that is the United States Election Assistance Commission. The law that created the agency allows two D’s and two R’s to be appointed and to become the professional expertise at the Federal level to handle issues like this.
We have to be careful that neither political party tries to change its charter so that it favors the views of any given political group, but rather to assure the bi-partisan aspects that make elections fair in the United States.
In order for elections to be free, we have to be sure that in our desire for security that we don’t actually make election offices a tool of politicians to favor their party or their point-of-view.
We need to remember that if the public does not believe in the fairness and accuracy of the voting process, it becomes impossible for them to believe in the government that results from voting. It is the reason that partisans need to use great caution in alleging manipulation of the election. Intense partisanship in the last 20 years of elections has put democracy at risk because the partisans believe it is okay to structure the process so that their party, or their point of view or their candidates should have an advantage. A process that favors one party over the other is not democracy. Democracy has to be fair and it has to be an accurate reflection of the voting public’s choices.
For more information about elections security topics, visit NCSL’s webpages on electronic transmission of ballots, online voter registration, Elections Technology Toolkit, and other publications from our blog and The Canvass. Don’t forget to subscribe by sending an email to TheCanvass@ncsl.org.
Amanda Buchanan is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Election Policy Center.