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Scientists urge a surge of cash and paper to protect U.S. elections

Scientists urge a surge of cash and paper to protect U.S. elections
[Photo: Parker Johnson/Unsplash]

Paper ballots should be used to help guarantee election security, and digital voting machines that don’t produce a paper trail should be replaced as soon as possible, according to a new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

A committee from the group, which traces its origins back to the 1860s, has been studying voting security since 2016. The committee, which included professors of law, computer science, and political science, as well as local voting officials, offered a number of recommendations on how the U.S. voting system can be made more secure against attacks by foreign hackers and others. It also explores ways to to address false claims of domestic voter fraud, which Republicans and President Donald Trump have made for years.

Among its recommendations:

  • States should carry out what are called risk-limiting audits, which compare a statistically sound number of paper ballots against any digital representations used for vote counting to ensure the process is working properly. “Auditing an election with tens of millions of ballots may require examining by hand as few as several hundred randomly selected paper ballots,” according to the report.
  • Internet voting should not be used, at least not now. There’s currently no technology that can keep internet-transmitted ballots secure, and online voting shouldn’t be deployed until such technology exists. “Insecure internet voting is possible now, but the risks currently associated with internet voting are more significant than the benefits,” according to the report. “Secure internet voting will likely not be feasible in the near future.”
  • Election officials should work to detect attempts to tamper with voter registration systems. When they find evidence of tampering, they should be required to report them to state and federal officials. (Russian hackers allegedly accessed voter rolls leading up to the 2016 election, and security experts have warned they could tamper with registration databases to cause election day chaos and distrust in election outcomes.)
  • States with purely digital registration systems should have a fallback in place. Traditionally paper lists known as pollbooks have been used for voters to check in, but some states have been shifting toward digital systems. “If an e-pollbook is connected to a remote voter registration database and there is no offline backup, a denial-of-service cyberattack could force voting to be halted,” according to the report.
  • Election systems should stay classified as “critical infrastructure.” The panel suggests that the federal Department of Homeland Security and Election Assistance Commission should continue to circulate cybersecurity practices as a guide for state and local officials. Elections have been considered critical infrastructure since early 2017, in the last days of the Barack Obama administration, though the designation has been somewhat controversial, with states wary of excess federal interference.
  • Congress should provide more federal and state funding, with a focus on cybersecurity. Congress should give “appropriate” funding to the Election Assistance Commission, a little-known federal agency, and should allot more money to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), so that it can improve security standards for elections and voting technology. The report also calls on Congress to fund “a major initiative on voting” made up of academic research centers and calls for Washington and state governments to replace old and outdated voting equipment. Congress last approved major federal funding for voting equipment sixteen years ago, in 2002’s Help America Vote Act.

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Of course, none of these recommendations will be easy to carry out, the panel acknowledges. Shifting lawmakers’ attentions to the funding challenge may be a special hurdle. “We have the capacity to build an election system for the future, but doing so will require the focused attention from citizens, federal, state and local governments, election administrators, and innovators in academia and in the industry,” said Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University and co-chair of the committee, at a Thursday press conference. “It also requires a commitment of appropriate resources.”

The effort will also demand cooperation across the political aisle—an ever scarce resource in the current climate. “Our nation is at a critical moment,” said Lee C. Bollinger, co-chair of the committee and the professor of Columbia University. “It is imperative that everyone, no matter what party or ideology one subscribes to, must now work together to strengthen our elections and protect the American system of democratic self-government.”

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