Another way to protect voting rights: Hack-proof our elections

A voter casts his ballot during early voting at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Va., on Friday, September 17, 2021.
Greg Nash

In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden made a pitch once again for his failed voting reform bill, the “Freedom to Vote Act.” But there was a conspicuous lack of attention on what’s arguably the most serious issue pertaining to elections: Protection against foreign cybersecurity threats. 

From the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack to the SolarWinds hack, we have seen time and again that malicious cyber interference is a clear and present danger to our economic security. Increasingly, it’s also a danger to our election security. 

In recent years, leading computer scientists and network security experts have found real vulnerabilities in election technology that could allow even lower-tier hackers to pose threats. As this technology ages, dozens of states are now in dire need of new equipment and support for managing security issues. Public reports from the Director of National Intelligence and other cybersecurity experts suggest that threats could come from Russia, Iran, China or North Korea, as well as non-state actors with radical agendas. 

But all is not lost. 

There is growing agreement across the political spectrum on how to improve election security: voter-verified paper ballots that create permanent, physical records of votes; risk-limiting audits that use robust statistical analysis to ensure accurate counts and ample, consistent funding for state and local election administrators in order to carry out trustworthy elections for years to come. There is also support for even stronger protection from hackers and foreign interference through improved federal oversight of voting machine vendors and by keeping voting and tabulation infrastructure off the internet. 

None of these reforms create any partisan advantages, only increased confidence in the security in our elections. Perhaps that is why we have seen repeated bipartisan support for many of these ideas, from the PAPER Act of 2017 to the Secure Elections Act of 2018 to the Election Security Act of 2019. But while lawmakers have passed some meaningful funding support in recent years, further action is needed. 

This is why I recently joined other leading supporters of free markets and limited government — including Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks, the R Street Institute, the James Madison Institute and others — in sending a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to prioritize secure elections. While we believe it is vital to limit federal expenditures and minimize Washington’s reach over state and local policymaking prerogatives, we recognize that election security is one area where the federal government has a necessary role to play. We cannot expect local elections administrators to go head-to-head with the offensive cyber-capabilities of foreign intelligence services. It’s a matter of national security — and basic common sense.

Moreover, ensuring adequate funding for election security is essential in order to preempt the disturbing trend toward private funding of elections, making it one of the best ways we can restore faith in our electoral institutions. 

Crucially, the fiscal burden here is small. The cost of replacing all paperless voting machines in the United States is roughly equivalent to the cost of just one F-22 fighter jet. Supporting cost-effective regular audits would add only a little more to this sum. Lawmakers should also consider full budget offsets, ensuring no additional deficit spending. 

Mitigating cybersecurity threats requires continuous investment. At a time when threats are growing, systems are aging and public confidence in the voting process is falling to record lows, Congress should do its part and assist state and local governments in securing our elections. 

Matthew Germer is an elections fellow at the R Street Institute. He previously served as policy counsel & strategic planning coordinator for the Washington State House Republican Caucus where he advised on election policy.

Tags Cyberattack Cybercrime Cyberwarfare Data security Election Security Joe Biden National security SolarWinds United States federal government data breach

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