"Infrastructurally" Sound?

A brief look at the changing face of U.S. elections

On January 7th, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security determined that US election systems (traditionally run by individual states with oversight by the Election Assistance Commission) should be considered to be part of the  “critical infrastructure” of the United States of America. Under this new designation, cybersecurity and compliance standards will be overseen by DHS. However, what does this mean to the average American voter? How will this impact the authority of state election officials? And what exactly is “critical infrastructure” anyway?

Critical infrastructure simply means public systems that are essential for the operation and survival of a society and economy – The U.S. Interstates, the military, law enforcement, utilities, railroads, sewer systems, and cyber technology would all be considered critical infrastructure. As of January 2017, 16 key sectors have been designated as part of the critical infrastructure of the United States. Source: https://www.dhs.gov/critical-infrastructure-sectors

If anything catastrophic interrupts these sectors, be it a natural disaster or act of terrorism, then America potentially devolves into a chaotic and unstable war zone.

To those 16 key sectors under DHS jurisdiction, we now add US election systems. For those who aren’t clear on what this intriguing new development means, as of January 2017, the Department of Homeland Security will have executive power to direct state and county election offices in matters of election cybersecurity including, but not limited to, monitoring and maintenance of voting systems and equipment, voter registration databases, accurate ballot tabulation, and assisting in creation of a Federal standard of “best practices” rather than leaving the decisions regarding the aforementioned to the discretion of Election Officials at the state and county levels.

Ryan Godfrey, an Inspector of Elections for a West Philadelphia, PA voting division generously granted US Vote an interview. During our chat, he appeared cautiously optimistic about the upcoming transition.

US Vote: Could this potentially be interpreted as Federal overreach, since the U.S. Constitution is very clear about state control of American elections?

Godfrey: “I guess first it's important to acknowledge that it is in fact critical infrastructure, regardless of what the implications of that designation are. That said, there are advantages to having lots of different systems managed locally. It means any systemic compromising is very difficult, of course, and hard to hide the tracks of. But, there are probably equal protection issues associated with that wide machine and procedure variance. Some localities are more likely to have the confidence that ballots will be tabulated more accurately than others. And that seems like a problem worth solving.”

“I haven't looked into what other people are saying about this development and what it might mean, but if there was a federal mandate for voter-verifiable paper ballots that could be easily recounted if necessary, and/or a mandate for, say, open-source voting machine source code, I would not be unhappy. I don't think it would be a good idea to have the same machine vendor across all localities, but having a standard would be useful, and provide some much-needed assurances to the populace that doesn't currently have much trust in the electoral system.”

While many election officials welcome the new developments, the issue is not without controversy. Various members of the Election Assistance Commission and National Association of Secretaries of State have released statements voicing their concern regarding the necessity of federal involvement in elections that are traditionally run by state agencies.

Questions about transparency of future election information have yet to be answered definitively. Issues still requiring a timely resolution include liability and accountability in case of a data breach, Voter ID requirements, which voting and ballot tabulation technology will be compliant with new federal standards, adoption of consistent absentee ballot procedures nationwide, and decisions regarding timetables for early voting.

Could future presidents or the courts overturn this ruling? The President could issue an executive order to revert back to the previous system, however unlikely. It is uncertain whether or not a legal precedent exists for states to file a Constitutional challenge to the ruling.

At US Vote, we will be keenly interested in how the designation of election systems as critical infrastructure will support cybersecurity readiness, reduce risk of election tampering, streamline standards for best practices, and facilitate better communication between state and federal election offices. Upcoming posts in this series will include viewpoints from a diverse group of election, legal, and cybersecurity professionals.

Our team at US Vote is eagerly looking forward to a more secure and modern election system that puts accuracy and efficiency front and center. We pledge to keep our voter registration and absentee request portals up to date for the convenience of our most critical piece of infrastructure: The American Voter.

Special thanks to Ryan Godfrey, Jay Wolman, Esq., EAC and NASS for their invaluable input. Credit to Politico and The Hill for clarification of critical infrastructure, as well as the definitions set forth by the United States Department Of Homeland Security.

Header photo: Shutterstock

U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c) 3 organization that works to facilitate and increase the participation of U.S. domestic, overseas and military voters worldwide through civic data, technology development, and access to personalized voter information services. Further information: www.usvotefoundation.org

Genya Coulter, aka the Election Babe, is a Precinct Clerk and Election Official serving the voters of Polk County, FL. When she’s not in charge of a precinct, Genya moonlights as the Twitter Goddess for U.S. Vote Foundation. www.usvotefoundation.org Twitter: @us_vote