A federal elections panel recently adopted new voting equipment standards despite an outcry from cybersecurity professionals who warned that the changes will leave America’s digitized ballot boxes more vulnerable to hacks.
The new standards from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which lawmakers also protested, did not prohibit embedding wireless communications hardware into voting machines as long as it is turned off.
The prospect of a flip of a switch opening wireless access to the ballot box exacerbates widespread fears that the U.S. voting system is not safe or reliable.
Two dozen cybersecurity, computer science and election integrity professionals organized by the nonprofit Free Speech for People wrote to the commission to warn that the public’s faith in voting would crater further if the commission allows the wireless technology, such as wireless radios, chips and modems, which are more capable of connecting to the internet.
“Public concerns about the security of our election infrastructure are higher than ever before. It is crucial that our election systems be secure and that our citizens trust that election systems are secure,” the cybersecurity professionals wrote to the commission. “Permitting the inclusion of wireless radios will both increase the vulnerabilities of the voting system and diminish voter confidence in the security of our election systems. Neither is acceptable.”
In response, the commission said it modernized the standards to make elections as secure as possible and to set the standards this year after a “painstaking, meticulous process.”
“This standard shows that a robust and credible framework is achievable with the right level of urgency, resources, commitment and collaboration,” said Ben Hovland, a commissioner appointed by President Trump.
Although elections are administered by state and local governments, a 2002 federal law gives the commission the authority to test and certify voting systems. Their standards affect how states choose voting equipment and set up their election systems.
The commission’s members include two appointees of President Obama and two members appointed by Mr. Trump.
Distrust in elections is growing most among Republicans. Just one-third of Republicans told Morning Consult pollsters in January that they trust the U.S. election system.
Republican strategist Chris Wilson, a campaign digital data guru, said voters’ attitudes about election security helped Democrats win the Senate runoff races in Georgia this year. He said those attitudes will play a key role again in the next midterm and presidential elections.
“Reassuring voters that their votes will be counted and counted correctly is a part of the picture of ensuring that they turn out and vote,” Mr. Wilson said. “You could almost think of answering voters’ qualms about election integrity as a new piece of the [get-out-the-vote] puzzle.”
Concern over cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the nation’s election infrastructure is an animating issue for the bases of both major political parties, stemming from Democrats’ fears that Russians and others hacked the 2016 presidential election and Republicans’ concerns about mail-in ballot fraud and suspicions about the voting machines in 2020 election.
Democratic lawmakers who criticized the commission’s new voting equipment standards got several cybersecurity-related provisions included in H.R. 1, the House Democrats’ election overhaul bill that passed the chamber this week without Republican support. Among the bill’s provisions is an “election security bug bounty program,” which would create a competition for private-sector workers to discover cybersecurity vulnerabilities in voting technology.
Reps. Jim Langevin, Rhode Island Democrat, and Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican, added an amendment to the bill that would compel the federal elections panel to prioritize cybersecurity and hire new staff for the job. Mr. Langevin and Mr. Gallagher are members of the federal government’s Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which called for an overhaul of national cyberpolicy that would be modeled after the Eisenhower administration’s secret Project Solarium study of options for confronting the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
With Democrats’ election bill on thin ice in the Senate, Mr. Langevin and Mr. Gallagher plan to pursue stronger cybersecurity in election systems through continued proposals in Congress.
“While I would prefer not to address election issues in a piecemeal fashion, I will continue to advocate for Solarium recommendations — many of which are covered in the base text of H.R. 1 — if the House moves to address election cybersecurity in a more narrow fashion,” Mr. Langevin said.