By Katie Richardson
The U.S. election system has an extensive history of security issues, many of which have caused national controversies throughout the years. Arguably one of the largest controversies in recent memory occurred during the 54th presidential election. In this narrow race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the presidency hinged on a recount in Florida after the first count was too close to call. However, it quickly became apparent during the recount that the hanging chads on the paper ballots were an issue, because it was impossible to distinguish whether the hanging chads are purposely punched out or were hanging due to repeated handling. Since paper ballots were used widely across Florida, this complication made an accurate recount infeasible. The flaw of the paper ballot motivated Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The main purpose of HAVA was to offer states federal funding to upgrade their election equipment, which in turn led to a large national switch to the electronic ballot.
Correspondingly, the controversy in the 2016 presidential race between candidates Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton highlighted the need for a better standard of cybersecurity against foreign actors. Since the 2016 election, the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Command has taken action through offensive cyber-campaigns to reduce the risk of foreign election tampering. Their most recent campaign was conducted during the 2018 midterms against the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg, Russia. Though it is difficult to measure the exact effect this campaign had on the election, Cyber Command was confident that the campaign disrupted the operations of IRA for several days.
Both the HAVA and the offensive cyber-campaigns have proven to only be a stopgap measures in election security. While it is true the electronic ballot eliminated hanging chads, other flaws have manifested in the electronic upgrade—such the lack of a paper trail for an audit. Similarly, while the cyber-offense conducted by Cyber Command may have reduced the spread of misinformation, it did little to address the issue of hacking. As public confidence in U.S. election security continues to degrade, it has become vital for those in U.S. leadership to take action. The question is: Who should undertake this responsibility?
The simple answer would be to leave the responsibility to the state. This would fit into the already decentralized nature of the U.S. election system. As it is, federal oversight has been limited to campaign finance and enfranchisement through agencies such as the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Meanwhile states and counties are expected to handle all other aspects of U.S. elections. The cost of election management has risen as election security threats evolve and this has made it difficult for states to regularly allocate enough resources to secure elections. Since election costs can vary wildly due to economies of scale, the option of individual state responsibility is unlikely to be sustainable in the future.
The next obvious choice would be to let Congress handle the responsibility of securing U.S. elections. However, experts have been clamoring at Congress for better election management for decades and Congress has taken little action. This can in part be blamed on partisan politics. That being said, blame must also be cast on the election equipment manufacturers, because these manufacturers have often lobbied against the upgrades suggested by security experts.
In order to avoid the pitfalls of Congressional oversight and the lack of state resources, the U.S. should create an independent federal agency that can oversee, fund, and manage U.S. elections. The restricted guidance offered by the EAC and the FEC is not enough. If the voter’s confidence in elections is to be restored, then the U.S. needs to move away from reactionary measures and move towards consistent, preemptive operations. A federal agency that focuses solely on election security would have the capability to do this in a manner that the Cyber Command or local election authorities cannot. Furthermore, a federal agency would be more accountable than actors with a conflict of interest—such as voting equipment manufacturers.
That being said, creating a federal agency and conducting the necessary research to run it will be expensive. The FEC alone requested a budget of $71.25 million in 2018. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that such a federal agency won’t face the same issues that many other federal agencies have been forced to contend with over the years—such as grappling with the influence of political appointments. However, if the U.S. is to continue to have democratic elections, then the U.S. needs to invest the election infrastructure. Since election security will only continue to become more difficult to manage as technology advances, leadership must address the current security issues now. If they do this, the U.S. will be better prepared for the election security problems it faces in the future.
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