The Ripon Forum

Volume 52, No. 6

December 2018

Election Security: An Ongoing Responsibility

By on December 17, 2018

by KIM WYMAN

While election officials across the country finalized results and certified the 2018 General Election, Florida’s elections once again captured the nation’s attention. As Washington State’s chief election officer, it pains me to listen to the criticism of my colleagues knowing the problems they face in conducting elections.

In our profession, election officials take special pride in being able to generate forward-thinking solutions for the challenges we encounter. I understand Florida’s predicament. For nearly two decades, Florida’s elections administrators have met the demands for increased voter access and comprehensive election security on aging infrastructure with little money to replace it.

This is not a problem unique to Florida. It is the problem facing every state, and it should sound familiar. Following the 2000 Presidential Election, with Florida’s contentious recounts and litigation, the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) provided over $3.8 billion to states for elections infrastructure. From 2003-2005, our country experienced an unprecedented upgrade of elections; most states purchased new tabulation and voter registration systems.

The great challenge of elections, however, is that for too long Congress and many state legislatures have incorrectly addressed staging successful elections as a problem that can be solved with a one-time infusion of money.

We should understand the upkeep of this bastion of American democracy as an ongoing responsibility that requires agility, attentiveness, and responsiveness.

In 2016, the President formally designated elections as a critical infrastructure sector. While this action puts elections security on the same level of importance as the power grid, it hasn’t stopped the partisan divide on the merits of federal funding for elections.

A core strength of American elections is the decentralized process. No one entity has oversight over all ballot counting, which means there’s no single point for a bad actor to attack.

Federal assistance and support by Washington’s legislature, combined with strong partnerships between the Secretary of State’s Office and the state’s 39 counties, have helped Washington transform our elections over the last two decades in sweeping, effective, and unique ways. Our state’s lessons and our plans for the future can be a useful map for the great challenges American elections will face in coming years.

In 2002, Congress sent Washington state more than $70 million in HAVA funding. Our state transitioned from punch-card ballots to optical scan tabulation equipment, expanded the use of paper ballots, and improved access statewide for voters with disabilities.

Next, Washington acted independently to implement four monumental elections changes. In 2006, a new statewide voter-registration database connected the voter rolls of every county. In 2008, we introduced online voter registration. In 2011, we completed a move to vote-by-mail elections, which gave our voters unparalleled access and ballot security. Washington voters enjoy an extended voting period to cast ballots from home, using paper, with a verifiable record for each vote. And in 2014, design began on an updated election management system to synchronize voter rolls in real time, slated to go live in 2019.

Congress must understand that allocating money to fund this system must remain unshackled from requirements for central control.

Following partisan debate on the merits of funding elections, Congress disbursed the remaining $380 million of HAVA monies to states this year. Washington received $8 million to improve cybersecurity. We are fortifying our defenses with equipment upgrades, creating a cybersecurity operations center to protect Washington’s elections, and implementing a rigorous cyber-defense testing regimen and an enhanced training program for all election officials.

That’s how we’re leveraging this one-time investment: boosting our defense structures around a voting system that gives every eligible Washingtonian maximal access to the ballot. Security measures like these are urgently needed. In 2016, Washington was one of 21 states whose elections security was targeted by Russian hackers. Fortunately, our strong defenses prevented intrusion.

This system cannot upgrade itself. Maintaining elections security is unlike building a dam or wall. One-time spending, without backfill or ongoing maintenance spending, is an ill-informed way to approach the true cost of critical infrastructure. It requires consistent training and upgrades. Maintaining our elections system is not a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans, state and federal, must support responsible budgeting that weighs strategic spending against the onerous costs that inevitably follow years of neglect.

A core strength of American elections is the decentralized process. No one entity has oversight over all ballot counting, which means there’s no single point for a bad actor to attack. There are 8,000 elected or appointed officials across the country responsible for our elections. They must maintain autonomy, for the good of the nation. Congress must understand that allocating money to fund this system must remain unshackled from requirements for central control.

Washington is just one of 50 states proud of our cutting-edge solutions. Election officials across the country are out there innovating. We must continue to share and learn best practices from each other. That’s only going to function optimally if our national leaders recognize that elections access and security are perpetual endeavors. National leadership to support training and information sharing within and among states will create secure systems in which every American can vote with confidence.

Kim Wyman is the Secretary of State of Washington.

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