As Americans look to next week’s annual celebration of the nation’s independence, much of Congress is engaged in a critically important effort to determine what Russia did, or tried to do, to influence last year’s election and whether President Trump’s campaign joined with Russian cyberspies in the effort.
But as vital as it is that Americans get to the bottom of this unprecedented, foreign attack on our democracy, a report issued this week by the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that future celebrations of our independence could depend on federal and state government action to thwart future electoral assaults.
The Brennan study, “Securing Elections from Foreign Interference,” warns that Russia is likely to repeat and intensify its campaign of electoral sabotage in 2018 and ‘20 and may be matched or topped by China, Iran, or North Korea. “The threat is not limited to nations, of course; well organized terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or ISIS have a history of executing cyberattacks on foreign government websites and could expand their efforts,” the report asserts.
The good news, according to Brennan, is that America can repel these 21st century electoral saboteurs with a modest investment of tax dollars and a commitment to readily available, mostly 20th century technologies including:
● Voting machines that produce a paper record of each ballot, allowing voters and election officials to check and verify machine counts. Brennan estimates that at least 80 percent of the votes last year were cast on paper or using machines that produce a paper trail, but the report notes that 14 states still use paperless machines.
● A robust system of post-election audits of machine-generated tallies using the paper records, including federally-mandated audits of presidential and congressional elections. “Today, only 26 states require that election officials conduct post-election audit of paper records” and even when audits are required, “they are often insufficiently robust” to detect the use of election-changing software, the report asserts.
● A full threat assessment for voter registration systems in use across the country. The report observed that “Many states are unlikely to have completed this kind of comprehensive risk assessment in the last few years, despite the fact that both registration systems and cyber threats have evolved enormously.”
● An upgrade and replacement of outdated voter registration databases. Here, “the need is particularly great at the local level, where systems often run on discontinued software like Windows XP or Windows 2000 that is more vulnerable to cyberattack because it is no longer vendor supported,” the report said. Congress should create a grant program to help cover the cost of improving and securing state and local voter information systems, it added.
The Brennan report estimates that a nationwide shift to paper-backed voting machines would cost $130 million to $400 million. To put that in perspective, consider that the high-end estimate of $400 million is 0,00049 percent of the $814.6 billion that American taxpayers had invested in the Iraq war as of 2015, when the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service last totaled up the war’s expenses.
Many state and local election officials are eager to replace their voting systems but have been unable to convince state legislators to pony up the necessary cash, the report says. “A time-limited offer from Congress to cover even a fraction of the costs to replace these systems is likely to go a long way toward pushing states with paperless voting machines to finally replace them with equipment that makes auditing possible and relatively easy.”
The report concludes with a lament that “election law and policy has become intensely polarized, like so many contemporary issues. Both parties are too often guilty of using debates around election systems and their integrity to seek electoral advantage or whip up their base. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine today’s Congress mustering bipartisan support for reform legislation like that seen for the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 or the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
“But this is a national security issue too...” it adds. “National security is no place for partisan squabbling. We all share the goal of protecting American democracy against foreign interference, and we must come together to safeguard the integrity of our elections.”
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Voting and Elections