As the 2024 general election draws closer, election security—both physical and cyber—is a top priority. NCSL asked election experts from the political left, right and center to identify their top security concerns, and what actions legislators might want to consider as they take up the topic in their states.
Kim Wyman, a senior election security expert at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, says the agency is working with partners in government and the private sector to address threats in four areas, including cybersecurity threats from sophisticated, state-sponsored threat actors and cyber criminals and insider threats from people with institutional knowledge and current or prior authorized access to equipment or sensitive information. They are also looking at foreign disinformation that undermines confidence in democratic institutions, and physical security concerns, including unprecedented levels of threats and harassment targeting election officials—something Wyman dealt with herself as Washington’s secretary of state.
“When people have had a chance to learn about the process by volunteering firsthand, by talking with administrators, or by reading well-executed explanatory material, they can better put in perspective the newest rumor about elections practice they heard on talk shows or the internet.” —Walter Olson, Cato Institute
Other election experts echo Wyman’s fears. “My biggest concern going into the 2024 cycle are the security threats that have existed in recent elections that have not been fully addressed yet,” says Ryan Williamson, a fellow in the governance program at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank. “If I could offer one piece of advice to policymakers, it would be to prioritize upgrades to both physical and cybersecurity infrastructure for elections.”
In 2022, Colorado enacted legislation strengthening physical security for the storage of voting equipment, and is taking steps to mitigate potential insider threats by barring anyone convicted of election crimes from holding positions overseeing election operations.
Another pervasive threat is that of violence against election officials themselves. After the 2020 election, amid a sea of misinformation about the transparency and accuracy of the election results, election administrators around the country became targets of harassment, threats and acts of intimidation—an ongoing problem. “These threats continued through the 2022 cycle,” says Liz Howard, senior counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive law and policy institute. These threats come with additional consequences, Howard says. “High numbers of election officials [are] leaving the profession,” she says, pointing to an example out of Gillespie County, Texas, which saw the resignation of the county’s entire elections department just two months ahead of early voting for the November midterm.
Measures aimed at protecting election officials by criminalizing harassment, intimidation and other intrusive acts passed in a handful of states in 2021 and 2022, with similar measures pending this session. Last year, California expanded the state’s address confidentiality program to include election workers, something Howard encourages policymakers to consider when crafting legislation: “One important step to help protect election officials is to expand the state address confidentiality program—also known as the ‘Safe at Home’ program in some states—by allowing election officials to enroll and protect their personal identifying information, such as their home address, from disclosure on public databases.”
Then there’s the more nebulous threat: the erosion of public confidence in electoral processes generally. “My biggest security worry is that more Americans these days are estranged from the electoral process and consider it rigged or not truly democratic,” says Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “When many people feel that way, the risk increases that some individual actor will decide to disrupt or subvert the process, or that multiple persons will act in concert to do that—such threats can come from both outside and inside the world of election administration.”
Talking to a local election official, or attending events where election processes and procedures such as machine testing are made public, can go a long way when it comes to educating voters. “When people have had a chance to learn about the process by volunteering firsthand, by talking with administrators, or by reading well-executed explanatory material, they can better put in perspective the newest rumor about elections practice they heard on talk shows or the internet,” Olson says.
Restoring trust in elections requires a full-court press, and everyone has a role to play, from legislators talking about elections with their constituents to administrators increasing visibility around the process. “Transparency in elections is a priority, and officials regularly provide the public with opportunities to observe throughout the process—from the testing of voting machines to the certification of results,” says Thomas Hicks, chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Some states are going further to increase election transparency and public access while maintaining the necessary safeguards that election security and integrity demand. In 2022, New Hampshire permitted poll watchers to observe the hand counting of ballots and vote tabulation while clarifying the distance at which such procedures may be observed. Utah passed legislation allowing poll watchers to observe ballot curing and requiring the posting of ballot statistics to county election websites, along with the hours during which one or more ballot processes are to occur.
Of course, getting hands-on experience in the election office itself is another great option for those wanting to know more about how elections are run. “The best way to see the election process firsthand is to serve as a poll worker during early voting and on Election Day,” Hicks says.
With preparation for the 2024 general election underway, there’s never been a better time—or more opportunities—for lawmakers to examine their election security laws and to encourage voters to get involved.
Saige Draeger is a policy associate in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.