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2020 Election Security

Since launching its Democracy and Cybersecurity Project, EPIC has worked to ensure that elections in the United States are secure and fair for all citizens, even during a pandemic. Through advocacy, litigation, and policy efforts, EPIC is fighting to protect democratic institutions and highlighting privacy and cybersecurity concerns related to election systems. Here are some of issues EPIC has focused on:

Protecting the Secret Ballot & Voter Privacy

voter privacy imageVoter privacy is critical to election integrity. The secrecy of a voter’s ballot selections is core to our democratic system. But some states have begun to consider deploying online voting systems. This is a mistake. As the National Academy of Sciences recently explained, experts in security and voting have found that secure return of marked ballots over the internet is not currently possible. The implementation of online voting systems would threaten both the integrity of the election process and the ballot secrecy. In 2016, EPIC published a report on the importance of the secret ballot, finding that all fifty states have constitutional provisions or statutes that require a secret ballot. EPIC has urged Congress to ensure that voting systems accurately record votes and to protect the secret ballot. EPIC has also recommended to the Election Assistance Commission to prohibit recallable ballots as well as ban internet-connected voting machinery.

In an amicus brief in Curling v. Raffensperger, EPIC urged the Georgia federal court to protect the secret ballot during the 2020 primaries. EPIC stated, “the right to cast a secret ballot in a public election is a core value in the United States.” The court’s previously ruling ordered Georgia to replace voting machines before the 2020 presidential election. Learn more about Curling v. Raffensperger.

Vote by Mail

vote by mail imageAdministering the elections during the COVID-19 pandemic requires election officials to consider the health and safety of all voters. To ensure a safe and fair election, there must be the availability of mail-in and absentee ballots. Mail-in ballots are tamper-proof and do not face the same vulnerabilities that make secure online voting impossible. Because of the pandemic, it is expected that there will be a major increase in mail-in voting in November. The Postal Service has “ample capacity to deliver election mail security and on-time,” but it is also dependent on state election officials to create mail-in ballot processes that ensure every voter has the ability to vote safely.

Verify Your Ballot Status

Every state has its own rules for mail-in or absentee voting. This year states are making it easier than ever to vote by mail due to the pandemic. However, some voters are concerned about whether state election systems can handle a huge influx of mail-in ballots. Luckily states have systems in place to ensure that every vote gets counted. These ballot status verification systems are a key part of the U.S. election integrity infrastructure.

Click below to check on the status of your mail-in or absentee ballot (and/or your voter registration).

Promoting Election Security and Integrity

cybersecurity imageFrom internet voting to election systems, our election infrastructure continues to be vulnerable to cyber-attacks. In 2016, EPIC published The Secret Ballot at Risk: Recommendations for Protecting Democracy and highlighted how internet voting threatens voter privacy. Both federal and state governments have acknowledged that the secure online return of ballots is not feasible. EPIC advocates against internet voting because of the privacy and security risks.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, EPIC has learned more about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. EPIC obtained the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Victim Notification Procedures,” which showed that the FBI is to notify victims of cyberattacks “even when it may interfere with another investigation or (intelligence) operation.” But, the FBI failed to notify U.S. officials that their email accounts were compromised during the 2016 election and a U.S. House report found that the FBI’s cyberattack victim notification “was largely inadequate.” Learn more about EPIC v. FBI.

EPIC also filed an open government lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security following the agency’s designation of election infrastructure as critical infrastructure. As a result of the suit, the agency has released hundreds of records to EPIC about the agency’s role in election cybersecurity and its slow response to election cybersecurity threats. Some of these records include: the DHS’s pre-election assessment on threats to U.S. election infrastructure, the DHS’s contacts with election officials, state reports of election security incidents going back to 2016, meeting minutes from the agency’s Election Task Force in 2017, and a September 2016 Election Infrastructure Cyber Risk Characterization Report. The incident reports, for example, revealed difficulties contacting Republican campaign officials, including the Trump campaign, in the lead up to the 2016 election and the agency’s concern about “unbalanced” outreach to both parties. In the September 2016 Election Infrastructure Cyber Risk Characterization Report, the DHS counseled strongly against untested voting technologies, particularly internet-connected voting systems, finding that the “introduction of new technologies in the voting system will increase vulnerabilities to the election systems in the future.” Learn more about EPIC v. DHS.

EPIC also filed the first lawsuit in the nation for the disclosure of the complete and unredacted Mueller Report. Through litigation, EPIC obtained memos about a suspected agent of a foreign power. One of the released memos was submitted one day after the Justice Department released the redacted version of the Mueller Report. EPIC also learned that there were no records of any outside referrals by Special Counsel Mueller for “administrative remedies, civil sanctions or other governmental action outside the criminal justice system.” EPIC’s case also forced the Justice Department to disclose additional material from the Mueller Report concerning Roger Stone, President Trump’s longtime ally and former adviser. Learn more about EPIC v. DOJ.

Security Risks to Election Systems

U.S. election systems face a wide range of security threats and vulnerabilities, especially when systems are connected to the internet or a wide-area network. Election systems include public election websites, voter registration systems, voting systems that allow voters to cast ballots, vote tabulation systems, election night reporting systems, and auditing systems. Different voting systems can be subject to a range of vulnerabilities based on how the votes are cast or tabulated. For example, computerized optical scanners are typically used to tabulate votes made by paper ballot or by ballot-marking devices (BMD). However, BMDs do not tabulate or record votes in the system’s memory. BMDs can be subject to hacking or misconfiguration in the software that could print out an inaccurate ballot. BMDs generally encode votes in bar codes or QR codes alongside the printed text of a voter’s choices but voters cannot verify the accuracy of bar codes or QR codes before the ballot is scanned by tabulation machines. Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) systems, on the other hand, involve a voter casting their ballot in an electronic system and the ballot is counted internally by the system’s computer. Because there is often no paper record, DRE systems are not auditable. Relying on computers like DREs have inherent cybersecurity risks and technological challenges, such as touchscreen miscalibration. There is currently no system that can provide a secure way to vote over the Internet while preserving the secret ballot. Human-readable paper ballots are the most robust method of casting a vote because it is not subject to manipulation by faulty hardware or software and can be audited to verify the results of an election.  

Other election systems can be subject to many different types of cybersecurity threats: denial of service attacks, malware, phishing attacks, or infiltrating data bases and networks.

Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks interrupt or slow access to machine or network, making it inaccessible to users. DoS can be used to disrupt the voting process by preventing access to electronic voting systems, electronic auditing systems, or e-pollbooks.

Malware can be introduced at any point in the voting process and might not be easily detected. From the software allowing voters to cast a vote on an electronic voting machine to the software used to tabulate votes to the auditing software used, the introduction of malware can compromise or disrupt the election process.

Phishing attacks can also be used to attempt to gain access to sensitive information. Attackers in these scenarios would target election officials with administer-level credentials in an effort to gain access to (or alter) voter information or other election databases.

There is also a risk that voter registration lists or vote tallies could be subject to malicious alteration. For example, hackers might seek to alter the voter registration database used to generate and update pollbooks if those systems are connected to the Internet. If a pollbook is altered, an eligible voter may be denied the right to vote on election day. Cyberattacks on pollbooks could also disrupt the election by compromising the record of who voted on election day or halt the voting process through a denial-of-service cyberattack.