Making U.S. Elections More Secure Wouldn't Cost Much But No One Wants To Pay | KERA News

Making U.S. Elections More Secure Wouldn't Cost Much But No One Wants To Pay

Jun 27, 2017

What would it cost to protect the nation's voting systems from attack? About $400 million would go a long way, say cybersecurity experts. It's not a lot of money when it comes to national defense — the Pentagon spent more than that last year on military bands alone — but getting funds for election systems is always a struggle.

At a Senate intelligence committee hearing last week about Russian hacking during last year's election, Jeanette Manfra , the acting deputy under secretary for cybersecurity at the Department Homeland Security recommended that election officials have a paper-based audit process to identify anomalies after an election.

While that's the advice most cybersecurity experts give, right now more than a dozen states use electronic voting machines that have no paper backup. Replacing those machines would go a long way toward protecting one of the core functions of democracy, says Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

"I don't think that would cost a huge amount of money. I think it would probably cost between $200 million and $300 million to replace that equipment," adding that $400 million is his top estimate.

But try finding the money. Congress provided $3 billion to help states replace their punch card machines after the 2000 presidential election but since then, funds have been scarce.

A $30 million plan in Arkansas to replace voting equipment, including paperless touchscreen machines, has been left unfunded. Two years ago, Virginia lawmakers rejected Governor Terry McAuliffe's request for $28 million to upgrade that state's voting machines, some of which are also paperless.

In Ohio, officials say their voting system is secure, but would be even more secure if they can replace their aging equipment before the 2020 presidential election. Timothy Ward, president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials and election director in Madison County, says as in most of the nation, Ohio's voting machines are more than a decade old.

He laughs when asked where election officials will find the money for replacements. His county alone could need as much as $1.8 million.

"That's the $64,000 question," he says. "Either the county's going to have step up and spend that kind of money, which I don't see that happening. Or the state's going to have to step up and I don't see that happening. Or the feds are going to have to step up. And it's going to be who blinks first."

Right now, no one's blinking. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to provide more funds for voting equipment, but they've gone nowhere so far. President Trump's budget also includes no new funding for states to improve election security.

Instead, the Department of Homeland Security is offering to help states identify where their systems are vulnerable to attack and how they can be made more secure. Manfra recommends paper-backed systems so election officials can audit results, where the electronic vote tally is compared with the paper one.

An audit is one of the best ways to ensure there's been no tampering, says Ed Felten, a computer scientist at Princeton University. "If you've sampled enough ballots in the right way, then you can have high confidence statistically that the election was done correctly, or that if there were any errors they were not big enough to affect the result," he says.

Right now, about half the states conduct post-election audits, but few do the targeted ones that Felten and other security experts say are needed.

Norden, of the Brennan Center, says audits wouldn't cost very much to do. "We're certainly talking in the tens of thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in very close cases," he says, adding that the cost would be even lower in races where the margin of victory is wide.

In any case, Norden says the price tag of an audit pales in comparison to the security it would provide.

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Election security experts estimate that it will cost $400 million to protect the nation's voting systems from attack. The Pentagon spent more than that last year on military bands, on instruments, uniforms and travel expenses. So $400 million is not a lot of money when it comes to national defense.

But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, getting funds for voting is always a struggle.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Last week, Maine Senator Angus King asked Homeland Security official Jeanette Manfra how local election officials can protect their voting equipment from hacking by Russians or anyone else. She had three pieces of advice. First, don't connect your voting machines to the Internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEANETTE MANFRA: Second, ensure that you have an auditing process in place where you can identify anomalies throughout the process.

ANGUS KING: But doesn't auditing mean a paper trail, a paper backup?

MANFRA: Yes, sir. I would recommend a paper backup.

FESSLER: That's pretty much the advice most cybersecurity experts give. But right now, more than a dozen states use electronic voting machines that have no paper-ballot backup, which can be used to help detect whether votes have been changed. Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice says getting such equipment would go a long way toward protecting one of the core functions of democracy.

LARRY NORDEN: I don't think that would cost a huge amount of money. I think it would probably cost between $200 million and $300 million to replace that equipment.

FESSLER: Four hundred million dollars tops, but try finding the money. In Arkansas, where some counties still use paperless touch screen machines, a $30 million plan to replace voting equipment statewide hasn't been funded. The Virginia Legislature rejected Governor Terry McAuliffe's request two years ago for $28 million to upgrade that state's voting machines, some of which are also paperless. And in Ohio, officials say their voting system is secure but will be even more secure if they can replace their aging equipment by 2020. Timothy Ward is president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

And where will you get the money?

TIMOTHY WARD: (Laughter) That's the $64,000 question.

FESSLER: Ward says the options are limited. Either counties will have to come up with the funds...

WARD: I don't see that happening. Or the state's going to have to step up. And I don't see that happening. Or the feds are going to have to step up. And it's going to be who blinks first.

FESSLER: And right now, in Washington, no one's blinking. President Trump's budget includes no new funding for states to improve election security. But the Department of Homeland Security is offering to help states figure out where their systems are vulnerable. They recommend having a paper trail so that election results can be audited. The idea is to compare the electronic-vote tally with the paper one. Ed Felten is a cybersecurity expert at Princeton University.

ED FELTEN: And if those match up and if you've sampled enough ballots in the right way, then you can have high confidence statistically that the election was done correctly, or that if there were any errors, they were not big enough to affect the result.

FESSLER: Right now about half the states conduct post-election audits, but few do the targeted ones that many security experts say are needed. Norden of the Brennan Center says it wouldn't cost a lot.

NORDEN: We're certainly talking in the tens of thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in very close cases.

FESSLER: He says the price tag pales in comparison to the security it would provide.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR SONG, "ATLANTIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.