Key Takeaways

April First Monday + Election Series Discussion: Holding off the Hackers, Defending Our Democracy

In 2016, the intelligence community sounded the alarm that our elections had been targeted with cyberattacks by Russian state actors with the intent of usurping American voters’ voices and assisting their preferred candidates. Infiltration of numerous states’ voter databases has been confirmed. Today, our nation’s electronic voting systems remain vulnerable to cyberattacks which threaten the integrity of our democracy. A lack of federal action means there is a strong role for nonpartisan advocates to play throughout the next few months.

The good news is that securing our elections does not have to be a moon-shot. Verification of paper ballots, increasing cyber security defenses, and other common-sense solutions have been implemented in many states. It is imperative that this momentum continues.

During this discussion, leading experts and advocates will outline the critically necessary safeguards which state election administrators can implement to ensure that future elections are protected from sophisticated cyberattacks. Funders will learn about how to best support current and future nonpartisan efforts to safeguard the integrity of our democracy.

Recording Here (FCCP Members Only)

Moderated by:

Allison Barlow, Program Director, Democracy & Media, Wallace Global Fund

Presented By:

Edgardo Cortes, Brennan Center

Susannah Goodman, Director of Voting Integrity, Common Cause

Marian Schneider, President, Verified Voting

Justin Zorn, Truman National Security Fellow

Key Takeaways:

Extent of the Issue

  • Russia targeted state poll books and voter registration databases in the run up to the 2016 election. Managed to actually infiltrate around 7 states
  • Even if the cyberattacks don’t work, they can still diminish confidence in our elections systems and risk keeping voters away from the ballot box
  • 2 main things need to be addressed:
    • Security and verifiability of our voting devices
      • Many states (some very large) don’t have any paper trails on our voting machines. The fact they’re not connected to the internet doesn’t mean they are immune from hacking.
    • Security and trustworthiness of voter registration systems and networks
  • This is not a theoretical risk – 2016 proved that. And it’s impossible to get risk down to 0 but we can do a lot of common sense reforms that can make big differences – such as using paper ballots that can be audited

What can Funders Support/What are Advocates Doing?

  • Federal Efforts
    • Bipartisan coalition recently got something added to a “must-pass” bill. Federal omnibus that just passed included $380 million for this issue.
      • Issue is that it’s very difficult to ensure the money through the appropriations measure is spent in the right way and that there is enough oversight on the EAC to spend the money correctly.
      • Work needs to be done at the state level to make sure this money is distributed well and we need to continue public education campaigns to make sure future legislation can pass
  • State and Local Efforts
    • Thanks to the federal omnibus work, election officials can expect to get the funding needed to implement different processes but we need advocates on the ground who can give expert opinion as to how it should be spent.
    • States need to push for a robust post-election audit process that can instill confidence in our elections and local progressive coalitions are key to do this
      • Colorado is a great model of this. 10 years ago, the EAC gave grants to do post-election audits and CO local election officials piloted programs at the urging of local advocates.
    • Which states are top priorities?
      • Swing states
      • Many of which already have paper but don’t have systems in place to use the paper in a post-election audit. That needs to be automatic so it’s not a partisan thing. Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, etc.
      • Part of the reason people haven’t moved towards these systems was funding (which isn’t as big of a concern now).
  • Working with Election Officials
    • It is possible to protect the integrity of the vote and expand access at the same time.
    • In VA, there were two major instances that prompted the replacement of touch-screen only machines in very short timeframes
      • In 2014 and 2017, the state grew concerned over different pieces of voting equipment (DRE – Touch screen only) from a security standpoint and decertified/replaced several voting machines in a short timeframe.
    • How did these transitions happen on such short timeframes?
      • Working closely with advocates to get technical information from election security experts to know what machines worked the best and were most secure. No way VA officials could have done that on their own in such a short amount of time.
    • As we are looking at what can be done in 2018, we still have enough time to increase security and implement paper based voting systems, especially with the federal funding coming out.

What about voter registration systems?

  • States can use services offered by DHS that scan and assess the security of your systems. They will identify holes that need to be addressed.
  • Also need to make sure these systems are up to current IT security standards. Audits need to be conducted to find those holes.
    • It’s not the age alone. It’s that some states haven’t upgraded software/servers or run audits. The maintenance is very important


  • How can we reassure voters that our systems are safe and their votes count?
  • Voters are concerned about election security but initial research hasn’t found any indication that us talking about it doesn’t mean they won’t show up
  • How we talk about paper is also very important (This is our recovery plan, our backup, etc.). People get that and when you explain the threat model, people will understand it and support it.
  • Still digesting a lot of work in this area but those are the two top lines.

What are some things that can be done now, to 2020, and beyond?

  • Need to figure out what the needs in your state are, where election administrators stand, and work with them/put some pressure for them to do this.
  • The new federal funding makes this really relevant everywhere. No longer a backburner issue when the money is there for these specific purposes but it’s critical the money is leveraged for real change.
    • Helping to build robust partnerships at local/state levels with several advocates and EOs to work together that makes change and has made change in other states like CO and VA
    • Nurturing those local partnerships would help with this
  • On the advocacy side – The solutions exist and are affordable. The bipartisan coalition exists, the credibility exists, but now we need more work on getting the messages across. A lot of that work is at the local/state level.
    • Getting to editorial boards and building credibility with local and state officials
  • Some states have bigger need than others and that’s why the state work is so important. Getting the message out in a way to resonates with EOs is key
  • This is a 50-state campaign so we need to be able to prioritize them