The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

Given all that transpired in the 2016 election, it seems altogether fitting that election guru Merle King used a quote from the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina:" “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

(From left, Merle King, Matt Masterson, Alex Padilla and moderator Representative Karl Rhoads of Hawaii."Every unhappy election is unhappy in a different way," King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State Univiersity,  told a Tuesday session on cybersecurity for elections at the NCSL Capitol Forum. He cited 2000's ballot design (hanging chads), the voting lines in 2012, "and this election characterized by concerns over cybersecurity."

Security questions aren't new, King said, but "the scope of concerns is larger than what we've seen in the past: the volume and the noise was louder and more strident and the persistence of the concerns."

Despite what you might have read on Facebook, voting maches are NOT connected to the internet.

"It surprises me how much of the public and even elected officials can't recall that fact," said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, adding that if he had a nickel for every cybersecurity question he fielded this year, he could balance the budget.

However, King told the session, lots of election-related systems ARE connected to the internet including the Department of Motor Vehicles, voter registration systems, ballot tracking, ballot marking systems, e-poll books, absentee applications, auditing systems and more.

"These are systems we have to be concerned with," said King. "We don't own the DMV but it feeds into the registration system."

King said security and cybersecurity will soon be part of the job description for elections jobs, that vendors must take a leadership role in articulating security systems and explaining to the public why they are secure and the FBI and other entities have to do a better job of explaining what they are bringing to the party when they get involved in elections.

Matt Masterson, vice-chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said the EAC was going to have a heavy focus on helping states and counties with aging voting systems, but that aging voting equipment doesn't challenge security any more or less than new ones, "it just brings into play different security challenges. The key is constant evaluation of threats. As yu look at new systems, don't think 'new' equals 'more security.'

King said there was "an advantage of running a mature voting system in that as mitigations come down, every time you change technology yoj're on the steep part of the learning curve."

More players are joining the election game.

"Governors started to realize that with the DMV, we have a role in this," said Masterson.

Internet commerce and voting are very different transactions.

"If there's a problem with my credit card bill I can work it out with my bank," said Padilla. "It's frustrating but it can be fixed. If you're doing elections online and here's a problem, how do you go back?"

No one believed internet voting was anywhere near the horizon, but Masterson said election officials have to consider the changing electorate.

"As you all look toward the future, we've already seen from voters a desire to interact with the process in the way they live their lives.I'm not saying that's internet voting  but the challenge for election officials is to meet that demand while still providing a secure and accurate and successful process. Security, accuracy and accessibility are all means to an end to having a process that has integrity, that we can trust the results. What you see election officials attempting to do as they look to modernize whether it is e-poll books, online voter registration, new voter lookup tools, greater exchange of data with the DMV, those are all ways to better serve voters. 

"The demand on election officials and therefore the questions that are going to come to state legislators is 'What are you doing to make this process more available to me while still mainting the integrity of the process.' "

Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.