- - Sunday, March 3, 2019

In an environment where the truth is precious, let me be unequivocally clear: There are very real threats to our election systems. Whether from a foreign nation state such as Russia, or from within the United States, these threats are real and persistent.

While we may not know the specifics of their next physical target, we know what they seek to impact every time — the public trust. The United States was a target for cyber criminals during the 2016 presidential election, and they will likely return in 2020 seeking to cause chaos and weaken Americans’ trust in our nation’s resilient election system. As the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) new chairwoman, I am focused on defeating these criminals and restoring confidence in our election system.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, intelligence officials began to piece together evidence of Russian election interference. Early reports were not as comprehensive as more recent assessments that the intelligence community has publicly detailed during congressional testimony and other statements. The vacillating facts that shaped the earliest assessments of what happened and to whom, as well as my lack of access to classified intelligence briefings that others would have had me swear to in good faith, gave me pause.

Dissemination of false or incomplete information could end up being more detrimental to elections than any cyber incident because it could weaken voter confidence. The hackers would have succeeded in penetrating their most valuable target and undermined the foundation of our democracy.

We now know from intelligence officials that, despite Russia and others’ best efforts, no hacker succeeded in changing the outcome of the 2016 election or in last year’s Midterm Election. Most of the attempts to infiltrate voting systems in 2016 have been equated to a burglar rattling the doorknob to your home without ever making entry, and the vast majority of election administrators ably kept these criminals at bay.

Nonetheless, these incidents underscore the need to continuously and rigorously assess the security of our nation’s election systems and our election officials’ readiness to face ever-evolving threats. These events were also the impetus behind the establishment of elections as part of our nation’s critical infrastructure, a designation that provides new tools and resources to help state and local election officials.

Initially there was widespread skepticism about the critical infrastructure designation in the election community, including from those of us who feared that a solution without a solid foundation could mark a new era of federal government overreach into election administration — an area that historically and constitutionally rests solely with the states.

Through much effort and with much relief, the resulting relationship between election officials with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal partners has unfolded positively, and has opened up clearer lines of communication between state and local election officials and federal experts who can provide much-needed security resources and training. The EAC deserves much credit for this outcome, and we continue to work with our federal partners to stay this course.

And while election security is front of mind for many Americans and remains an EAC priority, it is not the only task before election officials. Election administrators have a broad spectrum of responsibilities that not only impact the accuracy and efficiency of elections, but ultimately affect public confidence in the vote.

Transparency is key. From establishing clear procedures, to minimizing polling place lines and identifying accessible voting sites to conducting post-election audits (and everything in between), election officials have no room for error. The EAC is here to assist with resources and best practices in each of these areas and to coordinate with other federal agencies to provide additional aide as requested by those who run our elections.

During my tenure as the EAC’s chairwoman, I plan to prioritize impactful assistance that helps state and local election administrators prepare for the 2020 presidential election. For example, states are already in the midst of investing $380 million in EAC-administered Help America Vote Act funds to replace their aging election equipment, improve security, update voter registration systems, and invest in other improvements to their election infrastructure.

In addition, the EAC’s four commissioners, who represent a full quorum for the first time in nearly a decade, recently unanimously voted to put the a new version of the Voluntary Voting System Principles and Guidelines out for public comment, bringing us another step closer to final consideration and adoption of standards that will be used to test and certify voting systems.

Specifically for voters, the Commission is focused on ensuring that all eligible Americans have the ability to vote securely, privately, and independently, regardless of ability, language, or location, and to be able to trust that their votes will count.

Like those across the country charged with administering elections, I’m not here to score political points. I’m here to help assure fair and secure elections. Are there threats to face as we tackle that work? Yes. Are election administrators and their federal partners ready to meet that challenge? Yes. Are you ready to join me in making sure that those who seek to undermine our nation’s voter confidence do not succeed? I hope you’ll answer yes. We have much work to do.

• Christy McCormick is chairwoman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

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