The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

Tuesday is Election Day all across the nation; 6,069 state legislators will be chosen—along with 33 U.S. Senators, 435 Representatives, 36 governors and many, many other offices. Get the details on legislative races and ballot measures at NCSL’s StateVote 2018.

state vote logoMost of the news has been about who’s up and who’s down in the polls, but we’ve also seen a significant number of stories about election administration: cybersecurity, voter eligibility disputes and the impact of potentially high turnout are all in the news.

Those issues may catch headlines, but from an election administration perspective, U.S. elections just keep improving.

Take a look at the Elections Performance Index (EPI), formerly housed at The Pew Charitable Trusts and now housed at MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. This policy tool provides state-by-state evaluations of all the general elections from 2008 through 2016. With each general election, it gets better and better. Which is nice, because it shows that elections themselves, overall, are also getting better and better—6 percent better since 2012.

The EPI looks at 17 indicators of elections performance. It does not encompass all that might be desired in a well-run election, but it does use indicators that are measurable and not opinion-based.

Those indicators include wait times at the polls, voter registration rates, voter turnout, success in voting for military and overseas voters, how easy it is for voters to find the election information they need to vote, whether the data provided by the states is complete, handling of provisional (failsafe) ballots, post-election processes and more.

“Voters, policymakers, and election officials can use its rankings to compare their state with its own past performance, as well as the performance of other states,” says the EPI. NCSL can help interpret the EPI for interested legislators and legislative staff.

Great, you say. But what about cybersecurity?

While the EPI doesn’t have a “cyber” indicator so far, there’s lots of evidence that states are better prepared than they were two years ago to protect against attempted intrusions. As far as anyone knows, no voter registration data or votes were altered in 2016. There were attempted infiltrations of voter registration systems, but existing protocols stopped them from getting in or doing damage.

How have states improved on cybersecurity? They’ve devoted resources to:

  • Training staff may not sound exciting, but human fallibility is the easiest route for “bad actors” to get inside a system, so the savvier people are, the better.
  • Connecting to federal and cooperative resources such as the Elections Infrastructure Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center (EI-ISAC) and resources from the Department of Homeland Security.  
  • Making cybersecurity improvements, such as requiring multi-factor authentication, frequent changes to passwords, time-limiting access and more.
  • Replacing voting equipment where needed. Some states have done so in recent years, and others are on their way to figuring out how to finance the replacement of aging equipment—and figuring out what new equipment is right.
  • Requiring or beefing up post-election audits, with the aim that if “bad actors” know they might get caught, they’re more likely to think twice.

Does that mean tomorrow’s elections will go off without a hitch? I don’t know. There could be voter confusion on how to cast a vote (which was the story of 2000), or long lines (the story from 2012), or the usual mix of late-opening polling places, glitches with electronic or paper poll books, shortages of ballots, or, well, in the words of the late Gilda Radner’s Roseann Rosannadanna character, “It’s always something.”

Whatever happens, NCSL will be watching tomorrow night for not just election results but for election administration snafus. States learn from mistakes, but only if they know about them.

Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s director for elections and redistricting.

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About the NCSL Blog

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.