The 2018 midterm elections are over, mostly. But even with a few races still undecided, experts say election officials should be taking steps now to better secure the vote for the next presidential election, in two years.
Signs indicate that turnout will be huge, as support for and opposition against Donald Trump motivates voters across the political spectrum to cast ballots. For the midterm election, the U.S. Elections Project estimates that 49 percent of eligible voters cast their vote—much higher than the midterm average since 1982 of 40 percent.
Higher voter turnout certainly didn’t ease election cybersecurity challenges. In Texas, Hart eSlate voting machines flipped the top-of-the-ticket vote for some “straight ballot” votes, an option for voters to select all the candidates from a single party. In South Carolina, voters reported that some machines were flipping their votes too; officials blamed faulty screen calibrations.
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In New York City, dozens of voting machines, including ballot-scanning equipment, broke down. In Florida, voting machines overheated, forcing officials to recount 174,000 ballots. And in Georgia, a computer server at the crux of a lawsuit against state election officials had its data wiped just two weeks before the election.
The main defendant in the Georgia case is the Republican candidate for governor, Brian Kemp, who is locked in a recount battle with Democrat Stacey Abrams. In a statement to the Associated Press, Kemp, who resigned from his position as Georgia’s secretary of state after Election Day, blamed the server wiping on “the undeniable ineptitude” of technicians at the Center for Elections Systems at Kennesaw State University.
Georgia was also home to numerous electronic voting machine failures, a serious problem in a state that doesn’t use paper ballots as a backup.
Along with ongoing attempts by Russia to interfere with U.S. elections by hacking computer systems and spreading disinformation on social media, American election officials (and voters) are often overwhelmed by the array of challenges they face in ensuring smooth and secure elections, says Amber McReynolds, Denver’s former director of elections and now executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute and Coalition.
McReynolds argues that the vote-by-mail model she helped pioneer in Colorado can solve many of the nation’s election problems, which were introduced by what she describes as the “national overreaction” to the hanging chads of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.
“After the 2000 election, Congress put a bunch of money into voting machines that hadn’t been built yet, and now they’re outdated and have vulnerabilities,” she says.
Earlier this year, Congress allocated to states $380 million dollars in funds appropriated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002. States have been using the money to harden their voting machines and registration systems against hackers, purchase new voting equipment, and conduct post-election audits, but officials say they need lots more money to address all the voting-system security shortcomings.
While federal officials have expressed verbal support for updating election methods, new financial support and guidelines seem unlikely in the wake of the failed bipartisan Secure Elections Act, election security experts say. Changes they urgently recommend—including replacing vulnerable voting machines, ensuring that all votes have an auditable paper trail, securing voter registration computers, and committing to risk-limiting audits that validate election tabulations—thus are likely up to states and local jurisdictions to make happen.
“It reduced our costs to go to all-mail ballot delivery. Had we not gone to the Colorado voting model, it would have cost at least 10 times as much [to outfit] the polling places with updated machines.”—Amber McReynolds, executive director, National Vote at Home Institute and Coalition
Given how fractured America’s voting map is, experts are not optimistic that even the most basic of these recommended changes will be implemented before the 2020 presidential election. But McReynolds says states would save money and eliminate many cybersecurity problems by simply switching to mail-in ballots.
“In 2008, it cost Colorado $6.80 per voter using absentee balloting and DRE [direct-recording electronic] systems,” she says. And when the state switched to vote-by-mail statewide in 2014, she says, costs plummeted; the state saved $10.5 million with the move.
“In 2016, we were down to $4.20 per voter,” McReynolds says. “It reduced our costs to go to all-mail ballot delivery. Had we not gone to the Colorado voting model, it would have cost at least 10 times as much [to outfit] the polling places with updated machines.”
She adds that the state still has to invest in protecting its computerized voter registration systems, but it’s far easier to protect a handful of voter registration computers instead of half a dozen or more electronic voting machines per polling station.
Even with its vote-by-mail system, 80 percent of Colorado voters hand-deliver their ballots to drop-off centers on Election Day. That cultural tradition of physically visiting polling places—stronger in densely populated East Coast areas than in the more spread-out areas of the West—is one people shouldn’t underestimate, says Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the MIT Voting Project.
“West of the 100th parallel, the nation is going to vote by mail” in upcoming elections, Stewart says. “They were already used to voting by mail, and because of the great distances of the West, there’s been greater motivations to accept that kind of voting.”
Stewart does, however, agree with McReynolds that the likelihood of states getting more money from Congress to replace voting machines isn’t high, and he calls assumptions that new machines would adequately address vulnerabilities in state-run elections “fallacious.”
“That has blinded us to the degree to which the silver bullet is buying a bunch of equipment,” he says. States that don’t produce an auditable, verifiable paper trail of votes need focus on remedying that, he says, and those that use machines that can connect to the Internet and lack that auditable paper trail need to be replaced.
As our voting-machine map shows, 14 states have electronic voting machines with no paper trail. It’s not known how many of them are able to connect to the Internet, because some manufacturers have misled officials over such machine features. And while some experts think the solution lies in building cheaper, more easily verified voting machines with open-source components, Stewart cautions that we can’t overlook a big problem with voting in America that has nothing to do with computers.
“I think that there is a real human management and organizational challenge that needs to be addressed by states and localities,” he argues.
Basically, poll workers need to be taught how to prepare for and manage long lines, often in inclement weather, on Election Day.