For the People Act — Election Security

8 mins read
Election cybersecurity

This is the fourth in a five-part series educating the public about the benefits of passing the For the People Act.

Election security and integrity is not something you can invest in only once in a generation.”

Sen. Alex Padilla

In the aftermath of the devastatingly tight 2016 election, stunned Americans learned that foreign actors had hacked into voter registration and election systems in several states but had targeted all 50 states. As such actions were hardly the stuff to engender confidence, it wasn’t a stretch that many voters wondered, If they can get into the voter registration systems, what’s to stop them from changing votes?  

With that in mind, there was an unprecedented effort to ensure the 2020 election was secure. On Nov. 12, 2020, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), released a public statement saying, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” According to its director, Christopher Krebs, “The 2020 election was the most secure in U.S. history.” 

Of course if you only listened to right-wing media, you would never know it. “Election fraud, stolen election!” they shouted, parroting their failed leader’s Big Lie.

For an American election to be wholly successful, the voters need to have confidence in the results. That’s where the For the People Act (FTPA) comes in — it sets out new requirements that will make clear to the public that our elections are safe and accessible and provides the money for critical changes.

A key element of the FTPA is the mandate that federal elections be conducted using “voter-verified paper ballots” — ballots that voters can mark either by hand or with a ballot-marking device and then check for accuracy before actually casting their vote. While such a process seems like a no-brainer, it is, unfortunately, a fairly novel concept. Right now, at least six states use voting machines with no paper backup; other jurisdictions provide a “paper trail” that only displays something a computer can read, like a barcode or QR code, not a human. 

Paper ballots are important both at the polling place and during the tallying process. They give voters the opportunity to correct any errors. They can be used if electronic voting equipment malfunctions or if poll workers have problems, alleviating the long lines we saw in Georgia’s primary elections in 2020. Once the election is over, paper ballots, which leave a tangible record, can be hand counted as necessary to settle questions about the accuracy of the results.

To further support American’s faith in the validity of the vote count, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) — the U.S. government agency that helps election officials run accessible, accurate, and secure elections — will provide funding to state and local election officials to conduct audits. A special type of audit of paper ballots, called a risk-limiting audit (RLA), can confirm electronic vote counts quickly and decisively. 

Another area of improvement surrounds American voting equipment. Right now, the private vendors that operate these voting machines come under minimal federal regulation — as the Brennan Center for Justice points out, “The federal government regulates colored pencils, which are subject to mandatory standards …, more stringently than it does America’s election infrastructure.” Aside from an understanding that we need more regulation, lawmakers have raised reasonable questions about vendors’ ties to foreign governments — in 2019 they called out phones made by China-based Huawei and antivirus software made by Russia-based Kaspersky Labs; both companies were banned under the Trump administration over worries that they might help their governments commit cyber espionage

Under the FTPA, only U.S. citizens or permanent residents will be allowed to own or control election vendors. Further, all vendors must disclose to the EAC and the DHS if any parts of their infrastructure are sourced from outside the United States, as well as the names of people or companies with more than a 5% ownership stake. These changes will provide more visibility into the practices of these crucial vendors. Ultimately, by the November 2024 general election, all voting machines used for federal elections must be manufactured in the United States.

Building on this oversight, the EAC will be charged with increasing security around voting systems. This includes developing cybersecurity guidelines as part of testing and certifying voting machines and requiring their vendors to report cybersecurity incidents, such as attempted hacks and malicious code. Such policies mean that local and state governments and the American public will learn about any security breaches, like those in the 2016 general election. These measures not only engender trust but will alert election officials to critical issues. Experts have said that past voting system failures could have been prevented if vendors had only been candid with authorities about these instances.

Finally, the FTPA will direct the EAC to establish a task force of experts to conduct a study on the impact that bots — automated social media accounts — had on our elections and our public discourse. Emilio Ferrara, a data scientist at the University of Southern California, found that in 2016 nearly 19% of election-related tweets came from bots. While social media sites work to build bot-resistant technology or boot bots off platforms, according to Professor Tauhid Zaman of the Yale School of Management, “It’s an arms race.” Lawmakers who support the FTPA, like Rep. Mark DeSaulner, understand that these accounts “pose a clear danger as weapons that spread false information and manipulate public opinion and threaten free elections and the democratic process.”

All this week DemCast is focusing on educating the public about the benefits of the For the People Act and the urgent need to pass the bill in order to protect our democracy. To catch up on all articles, just click the links:

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Rena Korb is a professional writer and editor. Her publications span from children’s books to political commentary. She volunteers as a DemCast California captain and as a leader with her local Indivisible chapter. She also is a lifelong activist, attending her first protest when she was 16. She lives in San Mateo with her family and, in non-pandemic times, enjoys playing Ultimate frisbee.

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