Public Citizen News / November-December 2019
By Molly Kozlowski
This article appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.
In 2016, Russian hackers interfered in U.S. elections, undermining America’s democratic process and exposing voters to disinformation. Election interference in 2016 was only a preview of what’s to come unless Congress acts, Public Citizen maintains. That’s why it organized a national day of action and press conference in September to urge senators to give states the money they need to secure the vote.
The events were a stark reminder that voting systems in states remain vulnerable to internal and external hackers who might do everything from change names and addresses in voter registration databases to change votes cast, thereby changing the outcome. In 2018, the U.S. election system proved still vulnerable, as electronic voting systems in states like Georgia were left open to cyberattacks.
Congress has yet to enact universal protections against election interference, or to provide enough funding for states to secure their voting systems and instituting stronger voting security requirements – measures that Public Citizen has called for.
The U.S. House of Representatives in June passed a funding bill (H.R. 3351) that would allocate $600 million to states and localities so they can replace paperless voting system with verifiable paper ballot systems, secure voter data and hire staff to help counter the evolving threats to elections. The House in June also passed the SAFE Act (H.R. 2722) – comprehensive election security reform, including sustained funding. However, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking democracy reform bills, including the SAFE Act, and initially opposed election security funding as well.
To pressure senators to take action on election security, Public Citizen and dozens of groups, including the conservative groups Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, organized a national day of action on Sept. 17 at more than 40 locations across the country, including New York City, Chicago, Tucson, New Jersey, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and San Diego. Gathering in front of the district offices of U.S. senators, the activists demanded that their senators and McConnell approve the funding bill to improve the security of elections.
In San Antonio, members of the Bexar County Voter Protection Coalition, representatives of Public Citizen and other concerned Texans rallied outside the office of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and delivered letters from constituents urging his support of legislation to keep U.S. elections safe from interference.
“Without paper ballots or an auditable paper trail, Texas is especially vulnerable to election interference,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “That’s why we are calling on Cornyn to support $600 million for election security. The threat is real, and we must answer it today.”
Coinciding with the national day of action, Public Citizen held a telephone press conference with U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), election security experts and activists to highlight the urgent need for security upgrades ahead of the 2020 election.
“Any member of Congress who does not support taking concrete steps to stop foreign hackers needs to hear from their constituents that America has had enough of hackable voting machines and equipment,” Wyden said. “Right now, we are sending local election officials into battle against foreign hackers without the tools or guidance that are essential to defending our democracy.”
The heads of Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, two major conservative groups who share Public Citizen’s goal of securing elections, also held a press conference calling on McConnell to act.
On Thursday, Sept. 19, McConnell announced that he was co-sponsoring legislation that would provide $250 million for election security to be distributed to 50 states and thousands of counties. While it is a step in the right direction, McConnell’s funding is still inadequate, as it would amount to only $70,000 per county, which is barely enough to buy 13 paper ballot scanners and not nearly enough to hire IT security, Public Citizen said.
“It makes no sense to give states and counties so little to stop cyberattacks compared to the funding given to our military, police and first responders to protect us physically,” said Aquene Freechild, co-director of Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign.
The same week, a U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) committee met to consider allowing the next generation of federally certified voting machines to be connected to the internet, which is unsafe because it makes the machines more vulnerable to hacking.
“It is widely recognized that one of the best ways to protect machines from manipulation is to make sure they can’t connect to the internet,” Freechild said.
Time is running out for states to secure their systems before the 2020 elections. Public Citizen urges readers to tell their senators to send states the full $600 million for voting security and urge the EAC to ban internet connectivity in our voting systems. This would help ensure our election security and protect our democracy.
To make your voice heard on this important issue, phone the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 to be directed to the office of your senator.