As we approach the November 8 general election, there is broad consensus across the political spectrum that elections, and by extension democracy, are under siege. Whatever the beliefs, whatever the reality, we can and do protect our elections. Ensuring election integrity requires a sustained effort from all three stakeholder groups: government, election industry business partners and citizens.
Following the 2020 presidential election, the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (EI-GCC) and the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Council (EI-SCC) executive committees issued the following joint statement: “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”
That didn’t happen by accident.
The statement went on to say that “across the country, election officials are reviewing and double-checking the entire election process prior to finalizing the result.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the entire election community are well aware that to rest on its laurels would be a grave mistake, as the threats to elections have actually not abated, but are increasing. The persistent threat environment creates a formidable challenge for election administrators and officials and cannot be underestimated. Election officials commonly say that ensuring the security of all the moving parts of an election – from registration to voting to tabulation – can sometimes feel like playing whack-a-mole. Areas of concern encompass a wide array of points along the election continuum: physical and digital security, maintaining chain of custody, supply chain disruptions, and mis- and disinformation.
According to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the 2020 U.S. elections required more than 132,000 polling places staffed by more than 775,000 poll workers, most of whom are temporary. But election officials consistently report that their elections are underfunded and therefore understaffed, under-trained and under-resourced. This situation, along with the sheer size of U.S. elections, puts the entire system at risk. No one can or should expect election personnel to handle these challenges alone.
Given the decentralized nature of U.S. elections and the potential for vulnerabilities amid a growing threat environment, DHS in 2017 designated elections Critical Infrastructure. It subsequently established the EI-SCC. The Council’s mission is “to advance the physical security, cybersecurity, and emergency preparedness of the nation’s election infrastructure” by marshalling various resources available in the public and private sectors.
These resources have become quite extensive over the past five years. The EAC, the FBI, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) and private industry have been developing tools to assist election administrators and officials, policymakers and equipment manufacturers in fortifying election infrastructure.
The Council is further charged with focusing and coordinating these many efforts to ensure companies providing election services have everything they need to deliver continued resilience across the election ecosystem. Examples include best practice resources recommended by the EI-SCC and by CISA, including:
- Physical security;
- Law enforcement response from DOJ’s Task Force on Threats Against Election Workers;
- Supply chain and supply chain risk management;
- Guidance on securing election equipment chain of custody;
- Training and support for cybersecurity detection and prevention;
- Recommendations to improve information sharing across the sector, and;
- Multiple initiatives in both the public and private sectors to address mis- and disinformation.
These are just some examples of the many resources available or in development from government and private industry to fortify election infrastructure. But citizens play a critical role as well.
In recent years, as technology has become more integral to elections infrastructure, so have attempts at destabilizing elections through cyber-attacks and through the massive spread of disinformation by bad actors including (but not exclusively) the enemies of democracy – Russia, China, Iran – as well as independent hackers and others.
Continued success preventing and mitigating threats to election infrastructure requires a sustained commitment. As our name indicates, the mandate of the EI-SCC is to coordinate the many election resources available, to share information, and to develop new tools in response to evolving threats to election infrastructure in the United States. It becomes an even greater challenge if we fail to fortify election support efforts at the federal, state and local levels through consistent funding and policies. Without a reliable level of support, election officials will be hard-pressed to ensure that every American can easily, securely and efficiently exercise their right to vote.
The third component needed for long-term success involves citizen action beyond casting a vote. They can volunteer at their local election office. They are always in need of poll workers and back-office help during election periods.
Also, citizens should ensure that any election-related information they disseminate is from reliable, verifiable sources, particularly information that casts doubt on the validity of the process. In fact, bad actors don’t necessarily have to alter, destroy or otherwise invalidate actual ballots – election security is too good for that. It’s easier and less risky to create the perception of failures or chicanery using social media and disinformation to create chaos, doubt and uncertainty around election integrity. By undermining confidence in election systems, bad actors can effectively destabilize democracy.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” Well-resourced elections, good governance and engaged citizenry are key to safe, accessible and secure elections.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email Editor@Hstoday.us.