Mar 29 2022

What Is the State of Play on Election Cybersecurity?

Election security and infrastructure are under increased threat, but solutions exist to fight back.

As the 2022 midterm elections come into focus, state governments are introducing new measures to enhance election cybersecurity. Meanwhile, action at the federal level appears stalled in Congress even as concerns mount that states do not have enough resources to improve election security architectures.

The stakes remain as high as they were in 2020. “There is nothing more sacrosanct in our republic than voting,” Utah state Sen. Dan McCay tells local radio station KUER. McCay was the Senate sponsor of House Bill 313, which adds election security measures in Utah.

Utah is just one state increasing election security. The Michigan Bureau of Elections is providing $8 million for jurisdictions to implement additional election security measures for the 2022 election. Colorado legislators are considering Senate Bill 153 which, among other things, would provide $500,000 to enhance election security and provide additional training to election officials.

While these measures are crucial to maintaining free and fair elections within these respective states, all states have ongoing security needs, such as conducting regular cybersecurity audits and hiring cyber pros to assist when problems arise.

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Election Security Funding Is Simply a Starting Point

In 2020, the CARES Act allocated $400 million for election administration. Despite this, spending on election administration remains among the lowest in the nation, similar to the amount spent to run parking facilities, according to a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data and Science Lab and the American Enterprise Institute.

Prior to 2020, election officials made significant progress closing the biggest cybersecurity gaps. This included replacing voting machines that lacked paper ballots, which are easier to hack undetected, and increasing post-election audits to ensure hackers didn’t manipulate vote counting. (There is no evidence Russian hackers changed votes in 2016, but they hacked into voter rolls in at least two states and probed many other election systems.)

Without consistent funding, however, election officials are unable to address critical cybersecurity vulnerabilities, upgrade voter registration databases and websites, upgrade local election management systems, execute election audits, and more.

EXPLORE: How can election officials combat misinformation?

How Is Congress Responding to Election Security Concerns?

Recently, 33 Democratic and independent U.S. senators urged President Joe Biden to include $5 billion in his fiscal year 2023 budget proposal for grants to state and local governments to improve election security. However, that request lacks Republican support.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has proposed an annual budget of $400 million for elections and election measures favored by Republicans and Democrats. Generally, both parties are interested in increasing overall election spending; by how much and how to allocate those funds remain points of contention.

The bottom line is simple: “When election officials don’t have sufficient funds to run elections, they have to make tough choices and the truth is those choices can adversely impact the accessibility and security of elections,” David Levine, an election integrity fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, tells The Washington Post.

DIVE DEEPER: How does technology enhance election security and access?

Where Does Election Security Go from Here?

Election infrastructure is complex, with more than 10,000 jurisdictions managing elections. Standardization across states is crucial, but it is only achievable through consistent funding. Like all other forms of infrastructure, election infrastructure needs upfront investment and requires regular, ongoing maintenance.

According to the Election Infrastructure Initiative, there are “deep and accelerating needs” that fall under five major areas:

  • Election administration and operations
  • Antiquated voting machine replacement
  • Statewide voter registration systems modernization
  • Confirming the accuracy of results
  • Cybersecurity improvements and maintenance

The EII estimates $50 billion over the next 10 years is enough to fully fund state and local election infrastructure, allowing for election modernization and enhanced physical security and cybersecurity. In the end, it is a small price to pay for maintaining free and fair elections.

RELATED: Explore why cybersecurity training is crucial for government workers.

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