The Feds Are Spending Millions on Cyber Security for the 2018 Election, but Ignoring Some of the Biggest Problems

The just-passed federal budget is the first in a dozen years with new funds to secure voting machines and make vote counts more reliable.


But election officials said Friday that the best they could do for 2018's elections was harden computers against hackers, not replace electronic voting with paper-based ballots, which is the best practice for countering hacking, vote counts audits and recounts.

“This seed money is desperately needed by election officials now and so it’s an important first step,” said Noah Praetz, election director in Cook County, Illinois and a member of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission’s Government Coordinating Council, which was formed in response to Russian meddling in 2016’s presidential election.

“However, it is likely to be too little and too restricted (by the HAVA formula) to get states with paperless systems replacement technology quickly,” he said in an email. “New equipment and good audits, in places with paperless systems, can prevent the catastrophic from occurring. But only cyber expertise can prevent the localized chaos that comes with hijacked websites, or scrambled pollbooks. And this money can help with the latter problem.”

The $380 million appropriation was the first since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2004. But they said it was unlikely that the paperless voting systems now used by 13 states would be replaced until 2019, at the earliest.

“I do think it’s accurate to say that, given the procurement cycle and implementation timelines, states will have a hard time spending these funds on technology for 2018 if those purchases are not already well underway at this time,” said a spokesperson for a trade association representing election administrators.

“We are currently evaluating the appropriations against the formula used to determine what each jurisdiction will be eligible to receive,” said Brenda Bowser Soder, spokesperson for the Elections Assistance Commission. “We will have those numbers in place soon, and I am happy to provide that data as soon as it is made public. I am familiar with the estimates coming from non-EAC sources, but I am waiting for our team to give me the official figures.”

Those non-EAC figures are coming from groups like the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and Verified Voting, which issued a joint analysis Friday projecting the new funds will not be enough to replace insecure voting machines. 

“Thirteen states, including key swing states like Pennsylvania, continue to use paperless voting today,” their analysis said. “One of the main reasons is cost: cash-strapped states simply can’t afford to replace this aging equipment. Unfortunately, our analysis shows that under the new federal funding, seven of the 13 states with paperless machines will receive less than 25 percent of the money they may need to replace them.”

“In smaller states like Delaware, or in states like Texas and Arkansas—where a relatively small percentage of machines are still paperless—the federal money could go a long way toward replacing such equipment,” they said. “But in some larger states that are almost or fully paperless, like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Georgia, this money might not even cover 20 percent of the cost of new hardware.”

But election administrators said they could now deploy more extensive cyber security measures to guard against one possible result of a known Russian government hack in 2016—in Illinois, where Russians breached a statewide voter registration database and may have scrambled polling place voter lists. (Russians tried this in Arizona, but failed to access the state's motor vehicle database, which is tied into its voter registration system.) 

Praetz, who published a detailed plan in late 2017 to protect Cook County’s voter rolls, voting machinery and use better technology for recounts, said that the new funding would help with cyber security, but even that isn't a cure-all.

“The money can be used to support elections officials efforts to build cyber defense capacity, to pick the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “While cyber defense is not easy—ask Equifax, Uber, HBO, Sony or Target—most of the suggestions for protecting digital technologies and data, as well as the published best practices for elections, can be broadly categorized as fundamentals of IT.”

“This grant money can quickly be dispersed to local election officials through their states and we, as local election officials, can quickly invest in computer and cyber security expertise,” he continued. “These new folks working for us, with their cyber skills, can help us institute the suggestions recently published by the Center for Internet Security or Belfer Center at Harvard University, and other that may come for places like NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology].”  

“It’s important to remember, however, that the cyber problem in elections is a race with no finish line,” he concluded. “We need security investments that will sustain us in the race and match those of the enemy.”

EAC’s Government Coordinating Council will meet next week to start planning how to disburse the $380 million, said Judd Choate, Colorado election director and a council executive committee member, like Cook County’s Praetz.

In the meantime, the Brennan Center is calling on states to replace their paperless voting systems and appropriate funds to do so.

"Congress has taken a big step: funds for states to act," said Michael Waldman, Brennan Center president. "The budget bill will allow states to make significant investments in new election machines and computers, and in some cases outright replace woefully out of date machines that provide no auditable paper trail.

"But there’s more to do. Now states must act: putting in their own funds, they must buy new machines that are more secure, implement new audit procedures, add cyberprotections and upgrade election preparedness."

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