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Virginia Takes Steps to Secure Election Infrastructure

Twenty percent of registered voters still live in jurisdictions that don’t have a back-up paper ballot. The good news is that some states, like Virginia, are recognizing this as a problem and taking concrete steps to fix it.

  • Christopher Famighetti
September 21, 2017

For almost a year, through a sustained trickle of information, Americans have learned more and more about unprecedented attacks on the nation’s elections infrastructure. While there is no evidence that vote totals were changed, the attacks did make clear that our voting systems are vulnerable to malicious actors. Next time we may not be so lucky.

One way to guard against future interference and ensure confidence in our voting machines is to ensure that regardless of the machines employed, we have a voter marked paper ballot for each vote that can be used to audit the electronic totals. But unfortunately, 20 percent of registered voters still live in jurisdictions that don’t. The good news is that some states, like Virginia, are recognizing this as a problem and taking concrete steps to secure their election infrastructure.

Earlier this month, the Virginia Department of Elections moved to decertify four paperless voting systems. As a result, 13 Virginia localities must purchase and implement new machines in advance of the state’s November 2017 gubernatorial and legislative elections. In a memorandum to the State Board of Elections, Edgardo Cortes, the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, wrote that the banned voting machines “exhibited material risks to the integrity or availability of the election process.” The move will affect roughly 200,000 active voters — just shy of Virginia’s 2016 Presidential vote margin.

One of the most troubling and illustrative points Cortes made to the Board of Elections was when he said his office wasn’t going to release any details from its security assessment since other states continue to use the banned voting machines. Based on an analysis of data collected by Verified Voting, the Brennan Center estimates that eight states are using the models deemed too insecure by the Virginia Department of Elections.

This includes every county in Louisiana and all but two in New Jersey. It is also true of jurisdictions in Pennsylvania, Texas, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Together, these states possess 111 electoral votes, about 40 percent of the 270 needed to win the electoral college.

Jurisdictions in an additional five states use some other kind of paperless voting system. That means that in total, 40 million registered voters in 13 states are using solely electronic infrastructure. While not all of these jurisdictions use the models banned in Virginia, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most, if not all, paperless machines have comparable security vulnerabilities. Their susceptibility to hacking has concerned computer scientists and security experts for years.

Whether all 13 states get new, more secure, voting systems ultimately will come down to funding. Election officials in three Virginia localities responded to the state’s decision and raised concerns about finding the money. Their questions are well-founded. In fact, just two years ago, Virginia lawmakers voted against providing localities with $28 million for new machines. Other states, like Arkansas, North Dakota and South Carolina, have either recently rejected or scaled back planes to replace voting systems. The Washington Post noted that paying for more secure machines would be particularly difficult for cash-strapped rural counties in Virginia. Even with a smaller population than urban or suburban counterparts, replacing the infrastructure can cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the past, the Brennan Center noted that wealthier counties  have an easier time finding funding for new machines. On the other hand, poorer — and often rural — counties can end up using machines far longer than they should, sometimes well past the machine’s lifespan. Such a split has the potential to create a two-tiered voting system (a sort of haves and have-nots of elections).

But there is reason to hope that the federal government may step-up to the challenge and provide some much-needed funding for voting technology upgrades. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-N.C.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) co-sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would provide grants to help states purchase new equipment. In the House, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) co-sponsored a companion to the Graham-Klobuchar amendment, called the PAPER Act. Such bipartisan support for elections funding is a rare sign, and a recognition of not only the scale of the problem but the potentially detrimental consequences of inaction.