Brennan’s Larry Norden Challenges Congress to Step Up on Election Funding

[Image via nytimes]

Larry Norden of the Brennan Center at NYU has a new piece in Slate responding to reports of Russian “spearphishing” attacks on state and local election officials. You should read the entire thing but I want to highlight Norden’s challenge to Congress to get back into the game of supporting election administration across America:

Despite the alarms raised by these revelations in recent days, there has been little discussion of solutions. But the way forward is relatively clear. Protecting our elections against foreign attackers ultimately requires the will to squarely address known vulnerabilities—a will that has been lacking in Washington.

The details about Russian hacking cast into stark relief Congress’ stunning passivity around the issue of election infrastructure security—not just for the past few months, but for more than a decade.

Over the past few years, the need for new investment in our election infrastructure has become more and more apparent to anyone who studied the issue. In 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration warned of an “impending crisis” of aging voting technology….

While these studies’ main focus was often on voting machines, many of the same concerns about outdated hardware and software could be applied to state and county voter registration systems.

For the past 10 years, in the face of evolving cyberattacks and warnings from security experts about protecting our elections from hacking, Congress has remained strangely silent. Just about the only discussion there has centered around whether to shut down the tiny Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency charged with setting standards and providing guidance for electoral systems on criteria like performance and security. It has an annual budget of about $10 million, or less than 5 cents per registered voter.

Of course, under the American system, states and counties are in charge of running elections. But Congress has clearly has a supporting role. After all, among the elections that states and counties run are federal contests for Congress and the presidency. Congress has an obligation to ensure that these elections are fair and secure.

Moreover, many of the expenses that states and localities now must bear to secure our election system from cyberattacks stem from actions Congress has taken over the past 15 years. It was Congress that mandated the replacement of outdated and failing punch card and lever machines in 2002. It was Congress  in 2009 that mandated states transmit ballots to military and overseas voters at least 45 days before an election, requiring states to offer to send blank ballots by email, fax, or online delivery system.

These mandates greatly improved federal elections. With the purchase of new voting machines, the number of lost votes (previously caused by faulty punch card voting machines) plunged , and many disabled voters were able to vote privately and independently for the first time. New requirements for the delivery of ballots to military voters greatly increased their ability to get their votes returned on time.

But these mandates came with a cost far beyond the resources that Congress originally provided. At the state and local level, providing additional resources for election administration almost always comes second to more visible day-to-day needs, like education, repairing roads, and snow removal. Absent an actual election meltdown, local funders may not feel that spending scarce resources on improving IT infrastructure for elections is the urgent priority it actually should be. To take but one example of this problem, shortly before the 2016 election, the Brennan Center surveyed 274 county election officials in 28 states. More than half of the officials said they would need new voting machines by the 2020 election, but more than 80 percent of those said they did not know if or how they would be able to pay for replacements.

The revelations in the leaked NSA document make it plain that Russia is likely to continue to escalate its efforts to interfere in our democracy, and this fact may embolden other foreign powers or terrorist groups like ISIS to act against us as well. States and counties have done much to improve election security in recent years—most importantly, the vast majority of states have moved away from paperless voting machines. But more needs to be done.

We must recognize that we live in a world where foreign interests are vying for power on the world stage by trying to shape American politics or even attempting to create doubts that democracy really works. Against that backdrop, it is clear that strengthening election security is essential to protecting our national security.

Election offices across the nation are constantly being tasked with more and more responsibilities – and now, in addition to an already lengthy to-do list regarding their own voters, they’re being asked to defend the nation’s election system from foreign interference. They cannot do so without sufficient resources – and trying to stretch existing budgets to cover the new responsibilities will mean more risk of problems up and down those to-do lists.

Thanks to Larry for this piece; while I’m not terribly optimistic that Congress will heed the call, I hope they do – it’s past time for Congress to stop thinking of election administration as an extension of national politics and start thinking of it as an extension of national security – and fund it accordingly.

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