Securing the Future Vote

We have to look beyond 2018 and 2020 when it comes to protecting the integrity of our elections.

Photo illustration: A voting machine is covered by an "out of order" sign.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

More than a year and a half after Russia’s indisputable interference into the 2016 presidential election, Congress took a major step to help prepare our election infrastructure against interference in 2018 and beyond. Tucked into the omnibus spending bill was $380 million for election security, which will be distributed as grants to states. This funding came as welcome news to those who have been advocating for federal funding to support the most urgent steps states and localities should take to secure their election infrastructure—namely, ensuring that all votes are cast with a paper trail. According to Verified Voting as of this writing, five states exclusively use voting machines that do not produce a voter-verified paper audit trail: Delaware, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. Machines that do not produce a voter-verified paper audit trail are currently in use—though not exclusively—in another nine states: Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.

Fortunately, $380 million is roughly the amount that leading voting-infrastructure experts at the Brennan Center estimate it would take to replace all the paperless voting machines currently in use. Though there are some concerns that the way the funds will be distributed won’t actually fully cover the costs of replacing paperless machines for most states, this is nevertheless a major step toward securing the 2018 and 2020 elections. But it doesn’t begin to address some of the serious hurdles that we urgently need to address in the coming years and decades.

For one thing, election interference is about more than just hacking voting machines. The $380 million, if allocated to replace paperless voting machines and establish the sort of postelection audits that could boost confidence in the vote counts, would go a long way toward mitigating the threat of manipulated votes. But it doesn’t help with two other threats: manipulating voters (think Russian-financed ads on social media) and causing chaos or disruption to undermine confidence in election outcomes, or to interfere with the voting process.

The funding is also only a short-term win. While it will certainly help us prepare for 2018 and 2020, sooner or later, we will have to replace more than just paperless voting machines.
It’s going to be expensive, and no level of government seems to be racing to pick up the check.

The question of who will fund the longer-term future of voting reform is not the only big question on the horizon. Another challenge (which I explore in a recent policy paper): How do we sustain public faith in elections in the digital age?

This is a really complicated question. People can have faith in insecure systems, just as they can lack trust in secure ones. Voter confidence is fundamentally a matter of perception, and all sorts of things go into it. There’s evidence to suggest that voters are more likely to believe that voters were improperly counted when their preferred candidate loses. Other data suggests that voter confidence is linked to how competent they perceive their poll workers to be. And this is all before introducing the hacking fears of the present moment, punctuated by the steady march of headlines announcing major breaches of sensitive information. While concerns about electoral integrity and voter confidence are as old as elections themselves, the cybersecurity of elections conducted in the digital age presents a brand new piece of the voter confidence puzzle.

Understanding voter confidence going forward is no easy matter. It’s not only that we don’t know how voters form their expectations of confidence and security in the elections in a digital era. It’s also that public faith in elections in the digital age won’t be static—it could be affected by the severity and timing of future massive security breaches, by the rhetoric employed by the media around election security, and even by the very confidence measures introduced to boost confidence. Currently, the combination of paper ballots and rigorous postelection audits is widely considered to be the gold standard. But imagine the public has come to trust that the results between the paper and digital tallies will always match, proving that no vote tampering has occurred. Then say a postelection audit reveals serious discrepancies between the paper and digital tallies. This could be especially dicey if the process of reconciling the vote tallies involved any government actors that were perceived to be politically motivated. (Think of the controversial Katherine Harris, former Florida secretary of state, who was accused of partisan political maneuvering that shaped the outcome of the 2000 election in favor of George W.
Bush.)

These conversations—about preparing for the implications of introducing some of the urgently needed measures ahead of 2018—are few and far between. They are notably absent from the mainstream election security discourse, which, quite understandably and successfully, has focused on one or two key demands. The unfortunate truth is that it is enormously difficult to sustain the public and political attention required to implement even the most urgent short-term fixes, let alone to create the space required to consider the hazier questions on the horizon. And yet, when it comes to election security, the stakes are far too high for us not to be asking the questions of tomorrow.