Election Security and the Partisan Fight for Voting Rights
By Nicole Carle
Voting is at the heart of American democracy and the way of life in a free society. However, it has been proven that the U.S. 2016 election was compromised by a foreign entity and that the upcoming 2020 election is also under threat. Multiple states have asserted that they are ill-prepared. With this issue confirmed, there are still dozens of bills languishing in the Senate that would address this concern. Protecting our elections is not a fundamentally partisan issue, but failing to consider the proposed remedies is clearly part of a larger partisan strategy to suppress voting in certain areas of the country. And to aggravate the issue, Senate majority leadership is working to suppress the voting rights of Americans. The combined vulnerability of our infrastructure, coupled with the attack on voting rights, threatens the core of American democracy. The United States has the agencies, resources, and ideas to protect our election infrastructure and national security. But those will have to wait for new congressional and executive leadership, which we likely won’t see until after the next election and more damage is already done. Hopefully, that isn’t too late to fully salvage our democracy.
In January 2017, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designated election systems as critical infrastructure, allowing for additional resources to be directed to election security. The designation is meant for “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.” “Critical infrastructure” are fundamental systems that keep modern life moving along. Since we, as a society, are so dependent on systems such as wireless internet, transportation networks, and electricity grids, an attack on any of these structures could mean a severe disruption of civilian activity. And for the United States in particular, which relies upon such structures for its elections, that could mean a disruption of democracy. Election infrastructure includes voting machines, voter databases, IT systems, and other support at polling places.
After several states’ elections were compromised in November of 2016, election infrastructure met this definition. And states are still at risk–some have machines that are over ten years old, some are still relying on paperless machines, and only three states mandate post-election audits to provide confidence and accurate results. Some commentators suggest that this administration can go farther to include cyber networks as critical infrastructure. Nonetheless, the United States’ democracy is at risk for as long as voting systems and election infrastructure remain vulnerable to attack.
At the forefront of election security is a new agency within the Department of Homeland Security known as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). The creation of CISA was signed into law in November 2018 and focuses on protecting the United States from cyberattacks. For the protection of elections specifically, it provides cyber security assessments, virtual trainings, and other diagnostic services. However, CISA is underfunded and its budget was cut for 2021 from 2020. Senate Democrats have introduced bills to support election infrastructure and security ahead of the 2020 election; however, Senate Majority Leader McConnell refuses to hold votes on them. These bills include provisions to fund states’ election commissions to replace voting machines, introduce guidelines for states to increase security (for example, by requiring paper ballots), and require election audits.
And, on top of preventing secure elections on election day, Senate Republicans are placing individuals with histories of restricting voting rights onto the Federal bench. For instance, both Andrew Brasher and Cory Wilson argued on behalf of states to disenfranchise minorities. Brasher not only argued in favor of partisan gerrymandering for the State of Alabama, but he also signed onto an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act (“VRA”). Section 5 of the VRA is a key provision requiring states with a history of discrimination to seek permission from the federal government before making changes to voting laws. He was a federal judge for nearly a year before being nominated to the Eleventh Circuit. Wilson, on the other hand, has been nominated to be a District Judge for the Southern District of Mississippi and is a known strong supporter of restrictive Voter ID laws and purges from the voter rolls, both of which have resulted in thousands of voters losing their rights. Wilson has also criticized the U.S. Department of Justice for sending election observers to Mississippi, a state with a history of voter suppression and intimidation, stating that they should instead focus on “voter fraud.” These men are only two examples of the other side’s plan to leave our Democracy vulnerable and inaccessible to Americans.