Cancellation of Federal Assistance to US Elections — The Good, The Bad, and The Geeky
Recently I wrote about Congress dismantling the only Federal agency that helps states and their local election officials ensure that the elections that they conduct are verifiable, accurate, and secure — and transparently so, to strengthen public trust in election results. Put that way, it may sound like dismantling the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is both a bad idea, and also poorly timed after a highly contentious election in which election security, accuracy, and integrity were disparaged or doubted vocally and vigorously.
As I explained previously, there might be a sensible case for shutdown with a hearty “mission accomplished” — but only with a narrow view of original mission of the EAC. I also explained that since its creation, EAC’s evolving role has come to include duties that are uniquely imperative at this point in U.S. election history. What I want to explain today is that evolved role, and why it is so important now.
Suppose that you are a county election official in the process of buying a new voting system. How do you know that what you’re buying is a legit system that does everything it should do, and reliably? It’s a bit like a county hospital administrator considering adding new medications to their formulary — how do you know that they are safe and effective? In the case of medications, the FDA runs a regulatory testing program and approves medications as safe and effective for particular purposes.
In the case of voting systems, the EAC (with support from NIST) has an analogous role: defining the requirements for voting systems, accrediting test labs, defining requirements for how labs should test products, reviewing test labs’ work, and certifying those products that pass muster. This function is voluntary for states, who can choose whether and how to build their certification program on the basis of federal certification. The process is not exactly voluntary for vendors, but since they understandably want to have products that can work in every state, they build products to meet the requirements and pass Federal certification. The result is that each locality’s election office has a state-managed approved product list that typically includes only products that are Federally certified.
Thus far the story is pretty geeky. Nobody gets passionate about standards, test labs, and the like. It’s clear that the goals are sound and the intentions are good. But does that mean that eliminating the EAC’s role in certification is bad? Not necessarily, because there is a wide range of opinion on EAC’s effectiveness in running certification process. However, recent changes have shown how the stakes are much higher, and the role of requirements, standards, testing, and certification are more important than ever. The details about those changes will be in the next installment, but here is the gist: we are in the middle of a nationwide replacement of aging voting machines and related election tech, and in an escalating threat environment for global adversaries targeting U.S. elections. More of the same-old-same-old isn’t nearly good enough. But how would election officials gain confidence in new election tech that’s not only safe and effective, but robust against whole new categories of threat?
The Myth of Technologist Suppression of Internet Voting
I’ve got to debunk a really troubling rumor. It’s about Internet voting, or more specifically, about those who oppose it. Longtime readers will recall that Internet voting is not one of the favorite topics here, not because it isn’t interesting, but because there are so many more nearer-term low-effort ways to use tech to improve U.S. elections. However, I’ve heard this troubling story enough times that I have to debunk it today, and return to more important topics next time.
Here’s the gist of it: there is a posse of respectable computer scientists, election tech geeks, and allies who are:
- Un-alterably opposed to Internet voting, for ever, and
- Lying about i-voting’s feasibility in order to prevent its use as a panacea for increased participation and general wonderfulness, because they have a hidden agenda to preserve today’s low-participation elections.
I have to say, simply: no. I’ve been in this pond for long enough to know just about every techie, scientist, academic, or other researcher who understands both U.S. elections and modern technology. We all have varying degrees of misgivings about current i-voting methods, but I am confident that every one of these people stands with me on these 4 points.
- We oppose the increased use of i-voting as currently practiced.
- We very much favor use of the Internet for election activities of many kinds, potentially nearly everything except returning ballots; many of us have been working on such improvements for years.
- We strongly believe and support the power of invention and R&D to overcome the tech gaps in current i-voting, despite believing that some of the remaining issues are really* hard problems.
- We strongly believe that i-voting will eventually be broadly used, simply because of demand.
We all share a concern that if there is no R&D on these hard problems, then eventually today’s highly vulnerable forms of i-voting will be used widely, to the detriment of our democracy, and to the advantage of our nation-state adversaries who are already conducting cyber-operations against U.S. elections.
I believe that we need a two pronged approach: to support to the R&D that’s needed, but in the mean time to enable much needed modernization of our existing clunky decaying elections infrastructure, to lay the rails for future new Internet voting methods to be adopted.
Returning to the kooky story … but what about all those Luddite nay-sayers who say i-voting is impossible and that the time for i-voting is “never”? There are none, at least among tech professionals and/or election experts. There is some harsh rhetoric that’s often quoted, but it is against the current i-voting methods, which are indeed a serious problem.
But for the future, the main difference among us is about the little asterisk that I inserted in point 3 above — it means any number of “really” before “hard.” I’m grateful to colleague Joe Kiniry of Galois and of Free&Fair, for noting that our differences are really “just the number of ‘really’ we put before the word ‘hard’.”
PS: A footnote about i-voting Luddites and election tech Luddites more broadly. There are indeed some vocal folks who are against the use of technology in elections, for example, those that advocate for a return to hand-counted paper ballots, with no computers used for ballot casting or counting. They do indeed say “never” when it comes to using the Internet for voting, and indeed e-voting as well. But that’s because of personal beliefs and policy decisions, not because of a professionally informed judgment that hard problems in computer science can never be solved. In fact, these anti-tech people are the other end of the spectrum from the folks who so strongly favor i-voting at any cost that they caricature nay-sayers of any kind; both folks use out of context quotes about current i-voting drawbacks as way to shift a conversation to the proposition of “Internet voting, no way, not ever” from the more important but nuanced questions of: Internet voting, not whether, but how?
Dismantling Federal Assistance to US Elections — Good, Bad, or Ugly?
The U.S. Congress is in the process of dismantling the Federal agency that provides assistance to the local election offices that run all U.S. elections, and to the states that oversee them. That is the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a small agency that’s not well understood by a great many people — including several who have been asking me, and other election technology experts, whether dismantling it is wise, and what the effects will be.
I aim to answer all those questions, but in multiple short segments, of which this is first. I want to first lay out some of the issues that people need to decide for themselves whether it is a good or bad idea, or whether there are consequences that could be ugly. Then in other segments, I’ll get to some of the functions of the EAC that will be missed when it is gone, and the consequences of the gaps created by EAC’s exit.
Original Mission: Accomplished?
How you might think about dismantling the EAC is of course largely driven by what you think its function and value is. One of its original functions was part of a critical response to the hanging chad filled election dysfunction of the 2000 election — a good chunk of Federal funding to help states replace flawed voting systems with ones that didn’t depend inconsistent human interpretation of ballots (think of those photos of Florida election officials squinting at punch ballots to see exactly how the chad was hanging). A major function for EAC was to manage the disbursement of funds to states for eligible projects including but not limited voting system replacement.
That’s one reason why it might be good to dismantle EAC with a “mission accomplished” status: those funds are long gone, and the post-2000 voting replacement is finished. But what about EAC’s other election assistance activities? To be sure, states and localities are getting some ongoing support in terms of election management resources, research and data, and a small batch of ongoing grant money to disburse. But is it vital? How much value is really being delivered to EAC beneficiaries in state and local government? Clearly, some in Congress and elsewhere don’t think that the ongoing value is high, and most of the value desired by the original Help America Vote Act (HAVA), that created EAC, has already been delivered.
As a result, I think that it’s not a bad idea, and not even ugly, if you consider the value of the EAC in the original context of HAVA and EAC’s original mission. But that was well over a decade ago and a lot has changed. In following segments, I want to highlight some of the functions of the EAC that have evolved over time, and have become very important — indeed visibly very important in the last year. That change over time, the public visibility, means that a couple odd corners of EAC’s original mission might be quite important indeed. And, as EAC is being dismantled, there are important questions about how states and localities might or might not be able to pick up the slack in these important areas.
Here’s a teaser for those changes. Just in the last year, the public at large has learned what election experts have known for a while: the current voting systems (mostly paid for by HAVA) turned out not to be as wonderful as hoped, are wearing out, needing replacement, and were not and are not designed to be robust against manipulation against state sponsored adversaries. In short, we now know that U.S. elections are a target, a national security risk, and they run on antique insecure technology.
What’s EAC’s connection with that? More next time.