The Quest for a Boring Election

This week has been a sort of public reintroduction to the awesome challenges faced by our Local Election Officials. For many Americans the terms “hanging chad” and “butterfly ballot” have long slipped from daily use, but the threats to our democratic institutions remain.  In fact, these threats have only grown in complexity since our last popular encounter in 2000.

The reality that we are even having a national discussion about voting infrastructure in a time of extreme political  intrigue is one indicator of the severity of the problem.  Elections should be exciting, but we hope the systems by which they are conducted are competent to the point of being, well, boring.  At the very least we hope they would not be a primary topic of discussion.  Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

Local Election Officials (LEOs) work on the front lines of a critical and highly visible function of our democracy.  Their work facilitates the mandate by which our public officials govern and even small mistakes are seen as unacceptable.  Despite the challenges it entails, we expect our LEOs to do their jobs with a level of precision and accuracy that is almost unheard of in other sectors of society.

If we expect this level of performance from our public servants, then we must provide them with the support and resources they require to succeed.  As we’ve discussed before on this blog, The Obama Administration has taken an important first step by signaling forthcoming guidance for LEOs on protecting the nations voting infrastructure.

This guidance is significant as the current configuration of our infrastructure is so varied that a single solution is well out reach for the November elections.  The White House rightfully recognized this as a natural protection against widespread attack as it reduces the potential for a single threat to metastasize across the country.

You might also say that that varied infrastructure and those different systems also pose a pretty difficult challenge to potential hackers.  So it’s difficult to identify a common vulnerability throughout the system.

-Josh Ernst, White House Press Secretary

This is, of course, still little consolation for an individual LEO who faces a significant attack or system failure on election day.

Doug Chapin of Election Academy addresses this reality by making a strong argument for the personal responsibility of each election office to protect their systems:

Regardless of the response, it is vital for election officials in jurisdictions of every size and at every level to develop an awareness of cybersecurity issues – and, where possible to harden their systems against such attacks

Elections have never been simple, but there is a growing consensus that the game has changed.  Gone are the days when election technology was seen as a back water of government IT. LEOs are being asked to take on more risk and we must rise to the challenge of supporting them in this work.

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