An important first step to protect our elections

An important first step to protect our elections
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Following the 2000 presidential election, our electoral system suffered from a crisis of confidence. The fight over hanging chads in the handling of votes in Florida and a historic Supreme Court case led many Americans to question the cornerstone of our democracy: voting.

In response to those challenges, Congress and President George W. Bush acted decisively by passing the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which among other things established the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) an independent, bipartisan commission. In the mid-2000s, the EAC played an integral role dispersing more than $3 billion in federal funds and guidance to modernize and support local and state voting systems.

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Unfortunately, since that time, federal and state governments largely have failed to live up to their commitment to adequately fund our nation’s elections infrastructure — from equipment and training to cybersecurity. The 2014 Presidential Commission on Election Administration highlighted the coming crisis with aging voting systems, and the lack of funding and training to handle emerging threats.

 

The issue came to a head in 2016 with various reports and claims of hacks, data breaches and leaks. While the intelligence community and experts are confident that no votes were changed in 2016, the threat to our system is real.

In the 16 months since the election, Congress has not acted. Some members of Congress went as far as proposing to actually eliminate the EAC. The good news is that this week as a nation, we have turned a corner and those efforts to threaten the EAC have been rebuked by leaders of both parties.

Thanks to the hard work of a bipartisan group of congressional leaders such as Republican Sens. Lankford and Graham joining with Democratic Sens. Klobuchar and Harris, the omnibus spending bill that was enacted allocates $380 million to shore up our voting system. The legislation gives the EAC funding to help states promote election cybersecurity: secure election websites and registration systems, replace unverifiable voting machines, promote election audits, train election officials on how to respond to these threats, and on other election security best practices.

States now have some important choices, and we know election officials will work hand-in-hand with the federal partners and experts to prioritize funding to prepare against the greatest threats to the system. And significantly, we have reached a bipartisan consensus on a commonsense solution, one of the greatest threats to our democracy.

But we’re still not out of the woods. While the investments and reforms of the early 2000s helped shore up our electoral systems in the short term, they were not followed up by strategic, consistent investments at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade.

It’s like when you buy a house — just because you make a large down payment doesn’t mean you don’t need to pay your mortgage every month. This threat is not going away. States have responsibility for running elections, and that is why some have looked suspiciously at the federal government’s aid.

Foreign actors are not attacking Illinois because they want to disrupt that state’s election — they attack to threaten trust in our national system of elections. We need to contemplate a routine, modest stream of money from federal and state governments to combat that threat, without sacrificing other existing priorities for running elections.

In the coming weeks, months and years, we as a nation need to continue to think strategically about threats to our voting systems and consistently make the investments needed to ensure that our system is secure and accessible for all voters.

Adam Ambrogi is the elections program director for Democracy Fund Voice. Follow him on Twitter @AdamAmbrogi.