Every election faces its share of issues, but the 2020 U.S. presidential election is grappling with two major challenges. First, there is the pressing and immediate risk associated with in-person voting amid a pandemic. Primaries held in Wisconsin in early April have been blamed for an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the state, and election officials elsewhere are now considering various forms of digital voting to prevent crowded polling places.
That brings us to the second main challenge: ensuring the security and reliability of election technology. While technology will make this year’s election safer from a public health perspective, it could also create cybersecurity vulnerabilities. With forecasters predicting record turnout in November, it becomes increasingly important to address election cybersecurity issues as soon as possible.
The Current State of Election Cybersecurity
In the wake of Russia’s efforts to hack the 2016 elections, there were calls to increase funding for election cybersecurity and change laws to coordinate a nationwide plan to protect election integrity. However, those calls have received lukewarm support from legislators. To a large extent, election security faces the same hurdles it did four years ago—the difference is that the threats are much bigger in 2020.
Even with the federal government’s vast resources, securing the 2020 election will be an immense undertaking. Officials will need to address the risk of misinformation and disinformation campaigns, distraction efforts, and penetration attacks launched by state-funded hackers or chaos agents.
Multiplying the complexity, officials must address these risks within the context of America’s multifaceted election landscape. The stakes are high because any evidence of hacking or tampering could call the entire election into question, so officials act immediately. They can start by doing these three things:
1. Support the states.
Because the cybersecurity landscape across the U.S. is relatively decentralized, one of the best ways federal officials can offer support is to augment strategic cybersecurity efforts already taking place in many states. States like Indiana, Ohio and Michigan have started developing cyber support teams and consultative efforts. Federal agencies could develop more guidance on the best elements for states to include in those efforts, thereby reducing the startup costs involved and unifying the protections in place.
Beyond that, federal agencies should establish better standards and guidelines for state and local officials to follow. For instance, they could outline more stringent recommendations about electronic ballot encryption—and then help officials achieve those standards.
2. Provide security resources.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency offers state and local election officials access to free resources, such as cybersecurity detection and prevention assistance, cybersecurity assessments, and incident response. It has also created a #Protect2020 webpage to serve as a security resource for all election officials; the site provides general information, security services, and contact details for local election office websites. Further, federal officials should aggressively promote tools developed by nonprofits and industry partners that seek to monitor misinformation and disinformation.
3. Connect with jurisdictions.
Finally, federal officials should continue to build connections with local jurisdiction representatives to understand their needs better. State agencies are responsible for the overall election infrastructure and administration, but the local jurisdictions are directly involved in implementing federal and state election guidance. Simply put, we need more local representatives involved in federal-level conversations.
Even from the sidelines, federal government officials will play a key role in the success of—or problems with—the upcoming election. We must do everything possible with the little time we have left before November.
Mattie Gullixson is a project manager at the National Cybersecurity Center. She has experience in state and local government, including work as the assistant elections manager in El Paso County, Colorado, which has more than 400,000 registered voters.