Open letter urges states to spend election security funds wisely

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As states start receiving their slice of a new federal fund to enhance the administration of elections, an ensemble of election security advocates is calling on the officials to spend that money on things like replacing paperless machines and improving network security.

Signatories of an open letter to election officials in all 50 states include subject matter experts from think tanks and universities, former state election officials and former federal government officials.

State and local election officials have been deliberating over how to make the best use of a $380 million election improvement fund that Congress included in an omnibus spending bill last month.

“While federal funding can help states address these issues, simply upgrading or replacing election infrastructure is not sufficient,” the letter states.

At the top of the list, the group urges states to replace paperless voting machines with ones that produce a paper record — “a physical record of the vote that is out of reach from cyberattacks.” The U.S. is currently a mosaic of states and lower jurisdictions using different types of voting machines, some with a paper trail and some without. Some states started to move toward paper-based systems before the funding was a reality.

The letter also asks that states conduct post-election audits for federal elections. Such audits would involve randomly selecting and hand-counting a sample of paper ballots. Experts say the practice verifies the accuracy of vote counts and would detect whether voting equipment or software was tampered with.

“While there’s no evidence that vote totals were hacked in 2016, there’s strong evidence that hackers have been testing the waters,” the letter says.

The Department of Homeland Security notified 21 states last year that Russian hackers had scanned or probed systems related to their election infrastructure. The federal government has consistently reiterated that there’s no evidence vote counts were changed, but intelligence officials still warn that hackers will target future elections.

Jeanette Manfra, DHS’s top cybersecurity official, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday that DHS has yet to detect any targeting of state election systems as the country gears up for the 2018 elections, but admitted that the department can’t have complete visibility into the issue.

The letter also calls on states to enhance the security of surrounding election infrastructure, such as voter registration systems and election night reporting systems to protect against intrusion. Additionally, the signatories say that states should use the money provide training and education to election officials on how to implement security best practices into their roles.

The language surrounding the fund in the omnibus bill doesn’t technically set restrictions on how states can use the money, but many lawmakers have indicated that it should be used for security improvements like the ones in the open letter. The letter’s recommendations largely track a report the Senate Intelligence Committee issued in March pushing for stronger election security.

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election security, HAVA, omnibus bill
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