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Election Infrastructure Recommendations: We Need to Respect Our Election Officials

My thanks to the Center for American Progress (“CAP”) for their recent report “9 Solutions to Secure America’s Elections”. As my colleagues here at OSET Institute have already written, we agree with many of the report’s recommendations at a short term tactical level, but in addition have a longer term strategic view based on principles of national security, homeland security, and critical infrastructure protection. I’m very pleased that CAP has joined the discussions in the election integrity and technology community — especially the discussion about how election officials (“EOs”) can move ahead to better protect the critical election infrastructure (“EI”) that they operate. One of my two contributions to this discussion is not to disagree with CAP’s tactical recommendations, but to suggest that as guidance to EOs, any tactical recommendation is going to be more effective in a framework of greater respect for EOs.

That more respectful framework includes:

  • Acknowledge Election Officials existing activities in EI protection.
  • Acknowledge efforts in the Election Official community to increase that protection.
  • Exercise greater respect for states’ critical role in elections; not just local operation and State oversight, but also Election Infrastructure protection efforts.

I comment below on CAP’s report in each of these areas.

Respecting State’s Roles

While I don’t disagree with most of CAP’s recommendations, I do find several of them to be formulated with a common flaw — lack of acknowledgement of states’ critical roles in U.S. elections. There are several statements that use words like “require” and “mandatory.”

I object to all of these as being likely interpreted as over-riding states’ fundamental independence in matters of elections. The Federal government can’t and shouldn’t try to make any requirements, and no one else should dictate to states either. In the election integrity and technology community, we can suggest to individual states that their state election directors determine how to make new state specific requirements on their localities – for example, for uniform risk-limiting ballot audit processes and creation of public evidence from them. But it is up to states to decide what is appropriate and feasible for their state and its local elections offices.

We can hope that the growth of multi-state information sharing practices will lead to common approaches nation wide, but I don’t think it’s right to say that states need to be dictated to by anyone.

Particularly vexing is the suggestion that new Federal law should mandate vulnerability analysis of EI. Existing voting systems have already seen ample security analysis and discovery of many security vulnerabilities. Such discovery has occurred in every certified voting system product that states have assessed in efforts like TTBR, Everest, and more recent work. Federal legislators or regulators are not equipped to specify exactly what types of analysis are sufficient. Even if they were, a new unfunded Federal mandate to perform analysis would likely have a perverse effect — to shift limited funds away from the mitigation of vulnerabilities that are already well known, to required re-analysis of systems already known to highly vulnerable.

CAP makes a similar suggestion to require updating and securing voter registration (VR) systems. But this assumes that VR systems have inadequate security that isn’t being addressed. In fact, that’s not yet known. Some states have already focused on VR security, others recently sought DHS cyber security assistance, and others have not. Some VR systems might need a major re-design for cyber-security, while others might benefit from operations changes for better cyber “hygiene”. As with other activities that I list in the next section, VR cyber security improvements are ongoing.

Lastly, I find especially inappropriate the recommendation for automatic voter registration (AVR). Each state has a right to regulate its voter rolls as it sees fit, and AVR is not universally viewed as an improvement. Indeed, in some states, AVR would work against the state’s political culture that participation in elections should require a pro-active step on the voter’s part to register. It is certainly the case that adding AVR would require major technology updates to any VR system, but that is no reason to label current systems as antiquated. While some may have a political agenda for nationally uniform automatic registration, that agenda has no place in any recommendations to strengthen cyber security of the state IT systems that manage voter records.

Recommendations Already Being Followed

Of the nine recommendations, four are part of existing Election Official practices. EOs already have done, or are in the process of doing, a significant hardware and system transition. That transition includes efforts to replace aging unreliable machines, replace paperless voting machines, and support post election ballot audits. Similarly, there is an ongoing shift in ballot audit processes to adopt scientific and statistically sound methods for people to cross-check the work of fallible voting technology. (The scientific basis ensures the minimum effort for the maximum assurance that machine malfunction did not change an election result.)  Most recently, Colorado and New Mexico have made notable progress. In recommending these and other activities, we should respect that EOs already understand their importance and are pursuing them. Some EOs certainly could use assistance and encouragement that starts with respect.

Likewise, EOs already perform pre-election testing on voting machines, to the best of their abilities. But those abilities are limited by shortcomings of the voting systems that they have. One limit of particular concern is that most if not all voting machines in use today lack support for EOs to feasibly and accurately validate them. Such validation should consist of means to assess each voting machine to ensure that it remains in the original certified configuration, without modification or tampering. Given that limitation, EOs are already doing all the testing that’s meaningful to detect malfunction and unreliability.

So yes, these recommendations are sensible, but more importantly, let’s commend EOs. Let’s ask them, “What more you need to strengthen existing practices or accelerate in-progress changes?” — not just tell them to do what they are already doing.

EI Sector Formation Already in Progress

Two other CAP recommendations are about information sharing and coordination. Even leaving aside the inappropriate “mandatory” reporting idea, these two recommendations don’t recognize the extent of these and other related activities that are already ongoing: several organizations have started collaborating in the formation of election infrastructure (“EI”) as a new critical infrastructure (“CI”) sub-sector.  CAP provides helpful background to those new to CI: information about ISACs, the role of the intelligence community, the existing MS-ISAC, National Intelligence Priorities Framework, the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center and so forth. And it’s good to note one meeting hosted by EAC and DHS.

However, such meetings are part of an ongoing process in which we need to identify the key stakeholders, not just these Federal organizations and programs. EI sector formation activities already include leading local EOs, state EOs, and their organizations and associations including NASS and NASED. Rather than recommending general goals for activity in the EI sector or the community as a whole, we should be commending. Let’s commend EOs and all the stakeholder organizations for the formation work that they are already doing, and ask them, “What resources could accelerate the process?”

But further yet, we should identify specific aspects of work in progress that can be supported and accelerated by EI sector formation and sector organizations. For example, statewide uniform practices for risk limiting audits might emerge from both: inter-state information sharing that enable some states to learn from the early work of others; intrastate sharing of audit experiences to determine what works in the specific environment of each state. Intrastate sharing and cross-state local learning might also be fortified by more local stakeholder organizations, such as each state’s association of local EOs, and IAOGO.

Similarly, CAP’s “require minimum cyber security standards” for voter registration (“VR”) systems should not be cyber-operations standards imposed by some authority. Rather, effective VR security measures should emerge from on-going EI sector information sharing activities including: survey of existing practices, ongoing security assessment and remediation, and lessons learned by some states that can guide other state’s activity. The need is certainly urgent, given attacks in 2016, but professional assessment and practical remediation are called for, not top-down rules that might interfere with implementing lessons learned form the cross-state sharing activity that’s already in progress.


To close, I want to re-emphasize that most of the CAP recommendations are sound at the core, but would be better with a couple improvements:

  • subtract the “require” and “mandatory” and “Federal,” in favor of respecting states’ primacy in elections;
  • add some acknowledgement of EOs’ existing practices and efforts to improve security.

Our EOs are hardworking public servants who just received a new unfunded (for now) mandate to manage their election assets as critical infrastructure. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to do. The election integrity and technology community can have a helpful and supportive role, but it needs to start with both gratitude and respect for EOs’ work.


Dismantling Federal Assistance to US Elections — The Freeze/Thaw Cycle

Last time I wrote in this series on the EAC being dismantled, I used the metaphor of freezing and thawing to describe not only how the EAC’s effectiveness has been limited, but also the consequence:

We now have voting systems that have been vetted with standards and processes that are almost as Jurassic as the pre-Internet era.

This time I need to support my previous claims by explaining the freeze/thaw cycle in more detail, and connecting it to the outcome of voting systems that are not up to today’s job, as we now understand it, post-2016.

The First Try

EAC’s first try at voting system quality started after the year 2000 election hanging chad debacle, and after the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) designed to fix it. During the period of 2004 to 2006, the EAC was pretty busy defining standards and requirements (technically “guidelines” because states are not obligated to adopt them) for the then-next-gen of voting systems, and setting up processes for testing, review, and certification.

That first try was “good enough” for getting started on a way out of the hanging chad morass, but was woefully inadequate in hindsight. A beginning of a second try resulted in the 2007 recommendations to significantly revise the standards, because the hindsight then showed that the first try had some assumptions that weren’t so good in practice. My summary of those assumptions:

  • Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were inherently better than paper-based voting, not just for accessibility (which is a true and important point) but also for reliability, accuracy, and many other factors.
  • It’s OK if EVMs are completely paperless, because we can assume that the hardware and software will always make an accurate and permanent digital record of every voter’s choice.
  • The then current PC technology was good enough for both EVMs and back-office systems, because that PC tech was good enough desktop computing.
  • Security and quality are important, and can be “legislated” into existence by written standards and requirements, and a test process for evaluating whether a voting system meets those requirements.

Even in 2007, and certainly even more since then, we’ve seen that what these assumptions actually got us was not what we really wanted. My summary of what we got:

  • Voting machines lacking any means for people to cross-check the work of the black-box hardware and software, to detect malfunctions or tampering.
  • Voting machines and back-office systems that election officials can only assume are unmodified, un-tampered copies of the certified systems, but can’t actually validate.
  • Voting machines and back-office systems based on decades old PC technology, with all the security and reliability limitations thereof, including the ready ability of any software to modify the system.
  • Voting system software that passed testing, but when opened up for independent review in California and in Ohio, was found to be rife with security and quality problems.

Taken together, that meant that election tech broadly was physically unreliable, and very vulnerable, both to technological mischance and to intentional meddling. A decade ago, we had much less experience than today with the mischances that early PC tech is prone to. At the time, we also had much less sensitivity to the threats and risks of intentional meddling.

Freeze and Thaw

And that’s where the freeze set in. The 2007 recommendations have been gathering dust since then. A few years later, the freeze set in on EAC as well, which spent several years operating without a quorum of congressionally approved commissioners, and not able to change much – including certification standards and requirements.

That changed a couple years ago. One of the most important things that the new commissioners have done is to re-vitalize the process for modernizing the standards, requirements, and processes for new voting system. And that re-vitalization is not a moment too soon, just as most of the nation’s states and localities have been replacing decaying voting machines with “new” voting systems thatare not substantially different from what I’ve described above.

That’s where the huge irony lies – after over a decade of inactivity, the EAC has finally gotten its act together to try to become an effective voting system certification body for the future — and it is getting dismantled.

It is not just EAC that’s making progress. EAC works with NIST, and a Technical Guidelines Working Group (TGWC), and many volunteers from many organizations (including ours) that working in several groups focused on help the TGWC. We’ve dusted off the 2007 recommendations, which address how to fix at least some of those consequences I listed above. We’re writing detailed standards for interoperability, so that election officials have more choice about how to acquire and operate voting tech. I could go on about the range of activity and potential benefits, but the point is, there is lot that is currently a-building that is poised to be frozen again.

A Way Forward?

I believe that it is vitally important, indeed a matter of national security, that our election tech makes a quantum leap forward to address the substantial issues of our current threat environment, and the economic and administrative environment that our hardworking election officials face today.

If that’s to happen, then we need a way to not get frozen again, even if the EAC is dismantled. A look at various possible ways forward will be the coda for this series.


Kudos to EAC for Exploring Critical Nature of Election Infrastructure

Kudos to EAC for this week’s public Hearing on election infrastructure as critical infrastructure! After the 2016 election cycle, I think that there is very little disagreement that election infrastructure (EI) is critical, in the sense of: vital, super-important, a matter of national security, etc. But this hearing is a bit of a turning point. I’ll explain why in terms of: discussion before the hearing, then the aftermath, and then I will make my one most important point about action going forward. I’ll close with specific recommend steps forward.

Prior Negativity

Prior to this hearing, I heard and read a lot of negativity about the idea that EI is “critical infrastructure” (CI) in the specific sense of homeland security policy. Yes, late last year, DHS did designate EI as CI, specifically as a sub-sector of the existing CI sector for government systems. And that caused alarm and the negativity I referred to, ranging from honest policy disagreement (what are the public policy ramifications of designation) to par-for-the-course political rhetoric (unprecedented Federal takeover of elections as states’ rights, etc.), and just plain “fake news” (DHS hackers breaking Federal laws to infiltrate state-managed election systems).

The fracas has been painful to me especially, as someone with years of experience in the disparate areas of cyber-security technology (since the ‘80s), critical infrastructure policy and practice (since before 9/11), DHS cyber-security research (nearly since its inception), and election technology (merely the last decade or so).

Turning Point in Dialog

That’s why the dialogue, during the EAC hearing, and the reflections in online discussion since, have been so encouraging. I hear less competing monologues and more dialogue about what EI=CI means, what official designation actually does, and how it can or can’t help us as a community respond to the threat environment. The response includes a truly essential and fundamental shift to creating, delivering, and operating EI as critical national assets like the power grid, local water and other public utilities, air traffic control, financial transaction networks, and so on. Being so uplifted by the change in tenor, I’ll drop a little concept here to blow-up some of this new dialogue:

Official CI designation is irrelevant to the way forward.

The way forward has essential steps that were possible before the official designation, and that remain possible if the designation is rescinded. These steps are urgent. Fussing over official designation is a distraction from the work at hand, and it needs to stop. EAC’s hearing was a good first step. My blog today is my little contribution to dialog about next steps.

Outlining the Way Forward

To those who haven’t been marinating in cyber CI for years, it may be odd to say that this official announcement of criticality is actually a no-op, especially given its news coverage. But thanks to changes in cyber-security law and policy over the years, the essential first steps no longer require official designation. There may be benefits over the longer term, but the immediate tasks can and should be done now, without concern for Federal policy wonkery.

Here is a short and incomplete list of essential tasks, each of which I admit deserves loads more unpacking and explaining to non-CI-dweeb people, than I can possibly do in a blog. But regardless of DHS policy, and definitely in light of the 2016 election disruption experience, the EI community can and should:

  • Start the formation of one or more of the information-sharing communities (like ISAOs or similar) that are bread-and-butter of other CI sectors.
  • If needed, take voluntary action to get DoJ and DHS assistance in the legal side of such formation.
  • Use the information sharing organizations to privately share and discuss what really happened in 2016 to prepare, detect, and respond to attacks on EI.
  • Likewise use the organizations to jointly consider available assistance, and to assess:
    • the range of types of CI related assistance that are available to election officials – both cyber and otherwise;
    • the costs and benefits of using them; and
    • for those participants who have already done or choose to voluntarily use that assistance (from DHS or elsewhere) to, inform all EI/CI operators who choose to participate.
  • Begin to form sector-specific CI guidelines specifically about changes required to operate EI assets as CI.

And all that is just to get started, to enable several further steps, including: informing the election tech market of what needs to respond to; helping the 1000s of local election offices to begin to learn how their responsibilities evolve during the transformation of EI to truly part of CI in practice.