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?