As the nation gears up for what could be one of the most historic mid-term elections, it’s important to separate the misconceptions from realities when assessing the safety and security of our elections. A new cohort of nonprofits have emerged to focus on promoting election security and election access for the voting process. Election officials at the local and state level, as well as national officials, have worked incredibly hard since 2016 to identify and respond to foreign probing and cybersecurity breaches—and we believe that despite increased risks, our elections are safer than they have ever been.
The U.S. election system is not run by a single body or office—rather they are administered by approximately 10,000 local jurisdictions nationwide – which makes it difficult to coordinate an attack on the election process or rig the system. Even within the same state, different jurisdictions use different technologies to administer their ballots, making a successful attack even more difficult. There are problems that need ongoing attention; and it is certainly true that foreign interference is a real threat—but federal, state, and local authorities remain vigilant as they protect our democracy.
To secure an election, local election officials test machines in the lead up to the election to detect problems early and ensure things run smoothly on Election Day. In addition, all 50 states and 1,000 local election offices share information with U.S. Department of Homeland Security to prepare for potential cyber threats. Additionally, Congress has worked to provide state and local government with funds to aid them in securing this election.
To keep voting machines secure, they are held under lock and key with additional protections in place to ensure that nobody without proper credentials can access the devices undetected—typically with multiple layers of physical security such as fencing, key card access, locks, and seals, as well as observational video surveillance. Together, these serve as a check and balance to prevent tampering with the machines and to catch any errors in the count.
Similarly, it is very unlikely that anyone could ever change a vote tally. Ballots are cast at tens of thousands of polling places across the country. Changing an election result would require advance knowledge of likely results, numerous perpetrators working together to go completely undetected by communities, election officials, and law enforcement, including the FBI.
It’s also important to keep in mind that 80% of Americans vote on paper, and almost all states require a post-election review to validate the results. If a discrepancy exists, reviews and recounts are ordered, and the paper records are used for the official record. Even if an individual machine were compromised, the official result would be based on the paper record. And most states are considering a move to a post election audit that’s based on the difference between the the candidates, sometimes known as a “risk-limiting audit.” Furthermore, local election officials are the best resource in any election cycle. You can learn about how they secure the election systems, machines, and other equipment on their social media accounts. If there are problems getting attention from your poll worker or the head of your polling place, there is an effective national hotline, 1866-Our-Vote
Finally, instances of people voting multiple times or voting if ineligible are an incredibly rare occurrence, and this does not occur at a scale that has ever been shown to impact or change an election result. The registration rolls and voters reporting their identity both serve as a check, and the massive criminal penalties for voter fraud operate as a major deterrent. The likelihood that a scheme of voter impersonation would change a particular race is incredibly small.
While Congress needs to do more work to solve this problem-and fund a solution, they’ve started the process. Earlier this year, they appropriated $380 million dollars to the states, to be used to promote greater security of elections. All of the states and territories requested this money, received it, and many states are now using the money to improve security and voting systems. Overall, our elections are as secure as they’ve ever been—certainly compared to 2016. There are diligent public servants on hand to address security concerns that do arise in the 2018 midterms so that each state can understand the challenges and feel equipped to prepare for the 2020 presidential election. While I am optimistic, the need to better secure our elections and provide voters has never been greater, and Congress must provide a regular stream of funding to the states to deal with the rising threats—as the states and localities cannot match the magnitude of threats alone.
To find your polling place, learn about the candidates, or find other information about your local election from nonpartisan organizations like the Voting Information Project and Vote411.org—and find out more about your state’s recount process here. You can also talk with family and friends about the election. And to learn more about our work, check out the website www.democracyfund.org, including new research on the public’s view of election administration and reform, found here, and state-level news about elections on www.electionline.org.