National Push to Beef Up Security of Key Election Technology

An endeavor to create a national testing program for technology that is central to American elections will be launched later in the year, aiming to bolster the security of equipment that has provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories and been targeted by foreign governments,

So far, states have been left to their own devices to evaluate technology that forms the backbone of election operations, including websites used to report unofficial results on election nights, voter registration databases, and electronic poll books, which are utilized instead of paper dolls to check voters in at polling places.

The Center for Internet Security, a nonprofit, hopes to provide the nation’s first uniform testing program for the technology, similar to the one used in voting machines. The goal is to begin the voluntary service in September to boost the technology’s reliability and security before the 2024 presidential election.

In 2020, 15 states, including Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, didn’t require any electronic poll book certification or testing, according to data from the federal government.

“This is a critical need being filled at a critical time,” said senior vice president for Election Systems & Software, Chris Wlaschin, a leading manufacturer of voting machines that additionally produces electronic poll books. “I think as more election officials learn about it, the more they’re going to ask for it.”

Use of electronic poll books has rapidly grown in recent years

The use of electronic poll books has multiplied in recent years. According to data released by the federal Election Assistance Commission, almost one-third of all voting jurisdictions in America used electronic poll books in the 2020 election, compared to around 18% four years earlier.

The systems bring particular security challenges. One way to ensure people can’t vote in person after returning a mail ballot or vote at multiple locations. In several cases, they must have internet connections or interact with the ability to interact with systems that do. In counties with a vote center model, where registered voters can cast a ballot at any voting location, electronic poll books frequently communicate with each other and the central voter registration system.

How much the new testing program will affect the 2024 presidential election has yet to be determined. It will depend on the number of technology providers signed up and how many state election offices will use it. However, there is broad interest.

“One of the major benefits of this program is that it will provide a consistent process for certification for all of the different states that adopt it,” said Jamie Remes with VR Systems, which is a provider of election management systems and electronic poll books, at a recent event organized to consider that testing program.

The federal commission is pursuing its own testing program for the electronic poll books. Earlier in the year, agency officials said they are continuing to make progress with the pilot program; however, it is unlikely standards could be in place before the 2024 election.

As electronic systems have continued to grow, they have proved to be an attractive target to those working to meddle in U.S. elections.

Russian hackers scanned state voter registration systems in 2016, looking for weaknesses, and accessed Illinois’s voter registration database, although the investigation later determined no voter data was manipulated. Iranian hackers sent misleading emails obtained through confidential voter data, seeking to influence the election and spread misinformation, in 2020.

Experts say the systems are critical targets for those seeking to sow doubts about the security of elections and disrupt voting. For example, gaining access to a database for voter registrations could allow someone to remove voters from the rolls. When people arrive to vote, they are informed they aren’t on the list and force them to cast a provisional ballot.