OPED: Vote. Otherwise, the hackers win

John Fortier
Cq-Roll Call
FILE - In this July 14, 2018, file photo, computer mouse pads with Secure the Vote logo on them are seen on a vendor's table at a convention of state secretaries of state in Philadelphia. As alarms blare about Russian interference in U.S. elections, the Trump administration is facing criticism that it has no clear national strategy to protect the country during the upcoming midterms and beyond. Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the administration’s response as fragmented, without enough coordination across federal agencies. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

Don’t let worries about election security keep you from going to the polls. The American voting system is in a better place than it has ever been, and added layers of protection ensure that votes can be cast and properly counted.

What are citizens to do when they hear the constant drumbeat of elections under siege and the potential that election results could be changed by malicious actors? The answer: vote.

Sitting out the election does nothing to promote election security. Voter turnout in midterm elections typically hovers around 40 percent of eligible voters, which is already too low. Better information about the strength and resiliency of the voting system should reassure worried voters.

Let’s remind ourselves what really happened in 2016, because alarmist claims have swirled. Most important to remember is that there is no evidence any voting systems were compromised or that votes cast were changed by outside influence.

Yes, foreign actors launched misinformation campaigns, and those are real concerns. But that wasn’t the fault of election officials. Their job is to run a hardened election administration system, not police social media.

The major issue in 2016 was the threat to state voter registration systems — to databases of registered voters rather than vote casting or tabulation systems.

Here’s what we know. More than 20 states saw voter registration databases scanned. These scans were akin to those made every day of many public and private databases connected to the internet.

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In only a small number of states were outside actors able to view and copy registration records. Even then, no outside actor changed any records in the registration database or compromised the system.

We need more security procedures, but to move forward, we also need to be clear-eyed about the history of election security. In 2016, no votes or registration records were altered.

Now that we have a better understanding of the risks, constant vigilance is required to protect election systems in the future. Government administrators at every level and voters themselves are taking concrete steps to protect the vote in November.

First, state and local election administrators and the Department of Homeland Security have formed a strong working relationship to mitigate threats. The partnership between levels of government got off to a rocky start after the federal government declared election systems to be “critical infrastructure.” State and local election administrators felt that DHS was not knowledgeable enough about how elections are run, and initial intergovernmental communications were heavy-handed.

That relationship today is the gold standard for cooperation between federal, state and local authorities. Sharing information about threats and new security tools is a key pillar of election system security in 2018 and beyond.

Second, Congress has appropriated $380 million to states to improve their election security. While it’s not enough money to completely revamp election systems, it’s enough to make some fixes before Election Day.

None of that changes the inevitable: we will have to invest in our election security for the long haul. Both paper-based and electronic vote casting and counting systems are aging. New voting systems are likely to be paper-based, with stronger security features. They will also be more usable, reliable and functional.

Upgrading our voting hardware will take time and money; vendors will need one or two years to design and build systems to higher new standards. And local jurisdictions will need at least a year to buy, test, and deploy them. It’s not going to happen overnight, and it won’t be cheap.

Meanwhile, there’s room for improvement in the vote counting process. Some states have already implemented the most rigorous risk limiting audits, which help to ensure that there were no glitches in the way that ballots were counted. And there are other ways states continue to innovate the counting and auditing of ballots that will go a long way to restoring voter confidence.

Voters themselves can do three things to ensure their votes are properly cast and counted.

Confirm your registration today. In many states, you can check your voter registration status through an online portal or by contacting a local election official.

If you have a problem at the polling place, do not walk away. Request a provisional ballot and follow up with local officials to find out what you need to do to have the ballot counted.

Review your ballot for accuracy and completeness after you have filled it out and before casting it.

But most of all, vote.

— John Fortier is director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.