Event Recaps

Experts tell Capitol Hill staff of ongoing threats to U.S elections and how to address them as part of our “Don’t Mess With US” project

Election security experts were optimistic of Capitol Hill’s efforts to prevent foreign interference and harden U.S. election infrastructure ahead of November 2020 but called for more action at a staff briefing today. The panel was hosted and moderated by Issue One CEO Nick Penniman as part of our “Don’t Mess With US” project

“Election security is the greatest crisis facing our country today,” said Penniman. “We are here today to talk about solutions to ongoing foreign interference in our political system.” 

Off recent news that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walked back his staunch opposition to election security, Maurice Turner, senior technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, pointed out the $600 million appropriated by the House was a very good start while the $250 million in the Senate “is a downpayment that works out to about $1 for every eligible person who can vote in America.” 

“This is an all hands on deck call … I view this as a whole of country effort. It requires partnerships with many organizations, academics, manufacturers, security companies, nonprofits, think tanks, everyone,” he said. “It is a multi-billion dollar problem and to think any number lower is to disregard the criticality of threats we’re facing and the resources it will take.” 

He was joined by David Levine, the elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, who was previously an election security administrator. Levine noted that the federal funds are used by state and local election officials for everything from cybersecurity training to new equipment. But that the solutions still aren’t measuring up to the problem. “We’re seeing the levels of expertise rise when it comes to election security, but it is not quick enough.” 

Both panelists were careful to highlight how complex the problem of election security is: from a lack of paper ballot backups in hundreds of jurisdictions; nonexistent federal cybersecurity standards across the industry and local governments pertaining to voting equipment, websites, poll books, and more; inconsistent or nonexistent risk-limiting audits; to misinformation campaigns attacking voter confidence. 

Levine applauded steps Homeland Security made with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) to build bridges between federal entities and local election officials, noting that in 2016 there was significant friction between the levels of government. 

When Penniman asked both panelists about the hackability factor of our voting machines, Turner responded, “I would say nearly 100 percent of voting machines are highly vulnerable to being hacked.” The larger problem, he said, was jurisdictions updating their voting machines by buying brand new equipment still running Windows 7 — an operating system at the ends of its life following a decade of patches and updates from Microsoft. “That’s not a good use of taxpayer dollars.” 

The bipartisan Secure Elections Act, sponsored by Senators James Lankford (R-OK) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) also earned praise for being helpful by attempting to harden elections systems and providing funding and set minimum standards that the more than 8,000 election jurisdictions should adhere to. “Bills like this are good and a positive step in the right direction,” said Levine. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, Brennan Center, R Street, and the University of Pittsburgh released a report earlier this year detailing how federal funds helped states address election security vulnerabilities, while also outlining which unfunded needs remain. 

The scale of the problem was raised repeatedly, particularly related to challenges of stopping misinformation. All on the panel agreed that a necessary first step was to directly address the problem of foreign payments for political ads, and called the Honest Ads Act — sponsored by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), along with 36 Republicans and Democrats in the House — a good first step in doing so.

Both pieces of legislation discussed at the panel are part of the suite of bills in Issue One’s “Don’t Mess With US” package that would stop foreign interference in our elections on a range of fronts. Learn more about the project at www.dontmesswithus.org.