Vote of Confidence: I’ve Seen the Enemy of Elections, and It’s US
Recent indictments of Russian nationals in connection with meddling during the 2016 Presidential Election has reignited a conversation about the security of our voting process. The American public is justifiably apprehensive about their votes being taken, sold, or even changed by a nefarious actor somewhere on the dark web. Hacking itself, as demonstrated by the TV show Mr. Robot and by the group Anonymous, has entered into public consciousness as a murky, if not frightening, force that threatens to upend modern society.
In terms of our elections, the most frightening threats are often sitting in plain sight — we’re fighting a war against a well armed digital army and we’re fighting with pee-shooters and slingshots!
In 2013, President Barack Obama issued an executive order establishing The Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA). The PCEA set out to “identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations to promote the efficient administration of elections” in the United States. The PCEA is the kind of bipartisan civic investment that doesn’t get much news attention but is nonetheless crucial to maintaining, and improving, the status quo of our country. The commission released a 71-page report that characterized an American voting infrastructure in disrepair. The report described most active voting machines that were “reaching the end of their operational life” as they had been purchased with assets allocated to districts by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a bill President George W. Bush signed in 2002 in the wake of a contentious 2000 Presidential Election. Like computers and smartphones from 2002, those voting machines were not designed to last a decade, let alone what now amounts to almost 16 years.
HAVA was the impetus for many districts to shift from paper-based systems to electronic machines, but was also the last time that most of these districts made a considerable investment in their voting infrastructure. In a reportconducted by the Brennan Center in 2015, the cost of replacing outdated machines would exceed $1 billion. Amid budget cuts and lack of urgency, however, election infrastructure has not been made a priority and officials from at least 22 states do not know where funding for new machines would come from.
One might be excused for asking why aging machines are a problem. “It doesn’t matter if they’re old, as long as they work!” Not quite. Parts that need constant replacement, memory chips that are worn and overused, and outdated software could all prove disastrous on election day. If an essential part fails, a replacement may be nearly impossible to find and may not work with the software present on the machine. Haggard memory chips cannot reliably store crucial data and derelict security standards make current machines susceptible to extremely simple forms of hack or attack.
The reason for a compromised election result will most likely not be something as substantial as a plot from an opposing government but rather an antiquated part that couldn’t be found on ebay or an unreliable PCMCIA memory card. While foreign meddling plays into our appetite for stories that cover international scandal, the real threats are currently locked up in warehouse all over the country, waiting to be deployed November 2, 2018.
While the current state of our voting machines is alarming, there are active efforts to improve the state of affairs. This past February, the Department of Homeland Security announced a collaborative effort between public and private organizations to discuss security for the upcoming midterm elections. Efforts like these are exactly the kind of impetus the voting industry needs to shake up the status quo. Involving private stakeholders brings a much-needed spark of ingenuity to a classically antiquated industry. While more needs to be done, efforts like these bode well for the future of our elections.
Legislators should follow in the DHS’s footsteps and make new election infrastructure a priority, otherwise the next serious elections gaffe may be less and Mr. Robot and more trying to run a dial-up connection.