There's good news: most Americans still have at least some confidence in our elections.
But there's also troubling news: Americans' faith appears to be falling, and only four in ten now have “strong confidence” that their votes will be counted as cast. Among Republicans, the proportion has fallen to around a third.
Regardless of where you stand on questions of election integrity, we all need to reckon with a simple fact: Even just perceptions of rigging are corrosive to our democracy. We have a serious obligation to restore faith in our electoral system.
The question is how to do so.
As seemingly endless cyber-attacks have made clear, there is indeed reason for concern about the integrity of our elections infrastructure. It's not just that Russian agents and independent hackers are getting more aggressive. It's also that we need more sensible safeguards.
As the Brennan Center at NYU and other elections experts have documented, polling stations in many states are equipped with aging, paperless electronic devices and tabulators that can't be effectively audited. Some machines are actually connected to the internet, creating unnecessary vulnerability to intrusion.
These problems stem from the period immediately after the 2000 election debacle, when the federal government funded the purchase of more than $2 billion worth of voting equipment, including new machines—which were, back then, a novel technology. Owing to their age today, few voting machines have meaningful protections against today's threats.
Other current cyber-risks don’t involve the machines themselves: for example, hacking voter databases and other systems could cause shutdowns and, in turn, impact elections by keeping people from casting ballots.
And some related threats don’t even involve online hacking. A Princeton professor was recently able to manually alter a voting machine in a matter of just minutes—to prove a point about their vulnerability. In some jurisdictions, machines are left in hallways of precinct places with minimal protection.
While some analysts argue America’s voting system is “too distributed and decentralized” to be vulnerable to large scale hacking, the fact remains that small anomalies in the right precincts in big battleground states could swing elections. Remember the hanging chads of Palm Beach County?
In the remaining days before the election, state and local officials, outside watchdog groups, and federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security need to be extremely vigilant and do everything possible to deter and detect would-be attackers.
Ultimately, to restore faith in American elections, both Congress and local elections officials need to take simple steps to guard against hacking and other kinds of manipulation in future elections.
For now, there's one option that's both cheap and effective: returning to paper ballots. It's still the best practice among our allies in the industrialized world and the recommendation from an overwhelming majority of engineers and private sector cyber security personnel who work on the issue. For jurisdictions that have recently purchased electronic machines, it's often possible to reconfigure them to at least produce paper records that allow for meaningful review. On the cybersecurity front, we need to create serious barriers between the internet and all the voter registration databases, vote-tabulating machines, and other election management tools. And we need to require serious post-election audits in randomly selected precincts before certifying final results.
In a sense, it's unsurprising that Americans are losing faith in elections. We secure slot machines better than voting machines.
Still, there's good news here: We can repair election integrity relatively cheaply and easily. We just have to get back to the simplicity that defined US elections in the old days: verified paper ballots backed by robust audits, no more Wi-Fi-connected machines, and real protection for critical infrastructure like voter databases.
If our elected representatives are serious about rebuilding faith in our democracy, they should get serious about election security standards.
Justin Talbot-Zorn is a Truman National Security Fellow and a public policy consultant. He served as legislative director to three Members of Congress.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.