Report Highlights Election Vulnerabilities for 2020

(Chart via Brennan Center for Justice)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Offering a grim view of what needs to be done before Americans head to the polls for the 2020 presidential primaries, the Brennan Center for Justice reported Friday that states trying to replace and update voting machines are running short on the time and cash to do so.

Touting interviews with 121 election officials nationwide, the Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law also cites the threat to election security posed by outside forces like the Russia government. 

Multiple government agencies have long acknowledged that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to boost Republican candidate Donald Trump’s chances over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Though the government denies that Russia’s efforts altered the outcome of the election, it found that tactics included a social-media disinformation campaign as well as the outright hacking of voting machines in the key battleground states of Florida and Ohio. 

Congress responded to the report last year by allocating $380 million in election-security grants to states, but the Brennan Center says such funds “only scratch[] the surface” of what is needed.

Two-thirds of 121 election officials in 31 states told the Brennan Center they do not have enough money to replace outdated election equipment before the 2020 election.

“We face threats not only from foreign countries, but also the wear-and-tear of decades of use,” said the report’s author, Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “More money is needed, both from Congress and state legislatures, to ensure that jurisdictions have what they need to ensure free, fair, and secure elections.” 

The report cites a number of former and current election officials who claim their jurisdictions are strapped for cash and saddled with outdated or outright broken voting machines. 

“We are driving the same car in 2019 that we were driving in 2004, and the maintenance costs are mounting,” said Rokey Suleman, former elections director for Richland County, South Carolina, as quoted in the report. 

Suleman noted that many of South Carolina’s election systems run on Windows XP or other outdated software, which are vulnerable to cyberattacks. 

For example, a dozen states still use only electronic voting machines with no paper backup system in at least some of their counties. Intelligence officials have testified before the Senate that paper backups help election officials audit votes and could help thwart election hackers or others seeking to manipulate electronic voting machines 

The repot also notes that post-election audits are required before certifying an election only in 25 states. 

Shantiel Soeder, an election administrator in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, is among those who have lambasted the lack of a paper trail for votes. “We still find it important to print out receipts for other transactions in our lives,” Soeder said, as quoted in the report. “To have absolutely no paper, it’s almost irresponsible. These are people’s votes!”

Some like Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, have called for nationwide paper ballot systems in lieu of electronic voting machines. 

A California Democrat who has thrown her hat in the 2020 presidential ring, Senator Kamala Harris urged states to adopt paper ballot voting as well. “Russia can’t hack a piece of paper,” she joked last month.

Tuesday’s report notes that old voting machines are more widespread, with election officials in 40 states saying their machines are at least a decade old. 

A similar report by the Brennan Center in 2015 noted the widespread use of old voting machines designed and engineered in the 1990s. 

Voting machines generally have a “shelf life” of 10 to 20 years, though that estimate is closer to the 10-year mark, the Brennan Center says.

Despite need to update the machines, cost is a major issue. According to the Brennan Center, the cost to replace voting machines in many states is three or four times greater than the funds each state received from the $380 million in congressional grants. 

The report also says funding for staff training, IT support, and physical security around polling places and vote storage locations also are lacking.

Other groups have pointed to voting vulnerabilities. Last year a ProPublica report found that email accounts for county election officials in a dozen key races during the 2018 midterm elections required only a user name and password to access, rather than a two-factor verification process. 

Former Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson has called 2016 “a wake-up call” for Congress to fund greater election security at the state level.

In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security reported that Russians were among several foreign hackers that probed for potential voting vulnerabilities in at least 21 states.

Officials at the National Security Agency also believe Russia was behind efforts to hack the 2017 presidential election in France.

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