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Key to Healthy Democracy: Modern, Secure Elections

By Adam Ambrogi / 2017 September 28th

Democracy Fund is proud to announce a new grant to the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). With demonstrated expertise in data privacy and a deep understanding of the unique challenges of election administration, CDT is positioned to be critical bridge builder to help experts and policymakers better communicate, collaborate, and respond to threats to our election system.

Before I describe CDT’s voter registration and campaign data cybersecurity project, I’d like to offer a small window into our thinking about the importance of this line of work and how it supports Democracy Fund’s strategic priorities.

Voter Registration & the Increasing Challenges for Data Security

Increasing access to the Internet, the growing civic tech community, and improved technologies have paved a path for states to modernize voter registration systems. These modernization policies are appealing to many legislators and election experts who view them as a step toward cost-efficiency and an improved voter experience. For the last 15 years, states have been modernizing voter registration systems by offering online voter registration to citizens, facilitating collaboration between election officials and government offices covered under the National Voter Registration Act, and joining state-driven efforts like ERIC to keep voter rolls clean and identify eligible voters. As our systems map shows, these changes to registration systems help make voter lists more accurate, which leads to better election planning, and fewer problems experienced or perceived by voters on Election Day.

From an administrative perspective, modernizing voter registration improves the voter experience by allowing the voter to type in his or her own information into a database and streamlines the transfer of registration data between government agencies and elections departments. Registration data also helps political campaigns better understand the electorate and strategically reach out to potential voters. As these modernization policies are implemented in the states, election officials and other managers of election data have the enormous responsibility of maintaining these digital systems and protecting them from cyber-attacks—all while operating on limited budgets, preserving voting rights, and protecting individual privacy.

Election Integrity, Trust, and the 2016 Election

The tone and tenor of the 2016 presidential campaign raised our concerns about public trust in elections. While it is not unusual for the public to be concerned about possible voting fraud, the allegations from both presidential candidates that the election system was “rigged” or “hacked” in favor of a particular candidate or outcome felt atypical and worrisome. Irresponsible campaign rhetoric may have created (or reinforced pre-existing) misconceptions about the way elections are run. After the election was over and as fears about foreign interference in our elections were mounting, matters were further complicated by the NSA’s apparent documented evidence that the Russian government attempted to infiltrate voter registration systems in several states.

Calling into question the legitimacy of the election outcome without evidence of actual wrongdoing is harmful to the public’s faith in government and undermines our democracy. To reiterate: public concerns about election integrity are not unique to this past election cycle. However, public misconceptions about the way elections work and the real threats of foreign interference make the cybersecurity risks faced by campaigns and election officials even more significant. We must work toward sustainable solutions that give election officials and others the tools needed to protect the voices and votes of the American electorate.

Though difficult, it is not impossible to allay the public’s concerns. The increasing use of technology in election management makes the system more complex than ever before. It requires listeners to understand very technical administrative processes and makes it difficult for the news media to report about. However, election officials play a key role in shaping the public’s understanding of election process, and voters are very likely to listen. For these reasons, it is vital for stakeholders to balance the need to be responsive to public concerns with the needs of under-resourced election departments that could benefit from doable, sustainable best practice recommendations from the cybersecurity and civic tech communities.

Why We Invested

At Democracy Fund, we believe that every eligible American should have an equal opportunity to vote in elections that are free, fair, accessible, and secure. A healthy democracy requires election administrators and other government officials provide voters with confidence in the integrity of election outcomes and assurance that they have a voice in our democracy. Data-driven policies and new technologies can help reduce barriers to voting and improve the efficiency and security of our election system.

Based on analysis captured in our Election Administration & Voting System map, Democracy Fund invests in organizations and projects that are focused on expanding modern and secure voter registration systems; supporting voter-centric practices and tools in election administration to improve the voter experience; and fostering the public’s trust in elections by supporting a system that’s worthy of their trust.

We invested in the Center for Democracy and Technology because technology experts and election professionals need a reliable and trusted cybersecurity resource. With our support, CDT will:

  • Conduct a 2-year research effort to identify opportunities and challenges with cybersecurity in state election offices and national political campaigns;
  • Generate a set of best practices for election officials and the public; and
  • Distribute “campaign data hygiene” recommendations for all political parties.
  • Convene experts and stakeholders to learn from each other and co-create solutions to election security challenges.

You can learn more about these efforts in CDT’s press release announcing our grant and the project.

Political professionals should be able to keep discussions about campaign strategy internal; election officials should have the tools necessary to combat any type of outside interference; and voters should feel confident that our elections result in legitimate outcomes. We believe Joe Lorenzo Hall and the CDT team will fortify the field with research that deepens our shared understanding, create opportunities for learning and collaboration, and equip election officials and the managers of voter data with the solutions they need to protect voters and encourage participation in future elections.

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