Amid a chorus of warnings that the American election system is ground zero for foreign attackers, a panel of leading scholars and election experts issued a sweeping set of recommendations on Thursday for how to make elections more secure. Several similar reports have been issued lately, but this one is different. It not only carries a blue-ribbon pedigree from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, but it also suggests ways to address allegations of domestic voter fraud, which Republicans have leveled for years. The report notes the significant challenges of securing elections. In 2016, Americans voted in 178,217 precincts and 116,990 polling places. Under the Constitution, each state controls its own election procedures, and officials jealously guard their authority against federal interference. The rules vary so wildly that uniform standards are almost impossible. Still, many of the report’s proposals can be applied nationwide. Here are six ways the panel says that election security can be improved:
1. Use paper ballots to establish a backup record of each vote. Even if voter databases and other equipment aren’t connected to the internet, experts said, it will be hard to protect computer systems from cyber threats. As a result, they recommend that by 2020, every voting machine nationwide should generate a backup paper record of each vote. Currently, five states — Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Delaware and New Jersey — and portions of several others do not maintain a paper trail.
2. Outlaw any kind of internet voting — for now. Many states now allow some votes to be cast online, usually by armed forces members and other Americans living abroad. Twenty states and the District of Columbia let some voters submit ballots by email, rather than by mail. But the report recommends an outright ban on voting over the internet, or via any machines that are connected to the internet. For now, the experts say, that is simply too risky.
That said, they also urge further study into new technologies that might make electronic voting more secure. And the report says election officials and vendors of voting equipment should be required to disclose to federal and state authorities all attempts to breach security and any newly discovered vulnerabilities in equipment, software and databases.
3. Verify election results. With public confidence in elections declining, the panel said states should require public, transparent audits of all elections to guarantee their integrity, including audits of processes — like voter registration, preparing ballots and reporting of results — that normally get little scrutiny. The audit data, scrubbed of any private voter information, should be made public so outsiders can verify the results themselves.
Within a decade, federal and state elections (and where possible, local ones) should undergo risk-limiting audits, a statistical double-check that is the gold standard of vote validation. And all audits should be performed by human beings, not machines, counting actual paper ballots, not electronic ones.
The report calls for states to begin developing “end-to-end verifiable voting systems” — a method that lets voters confirm that election equipment is working properly and that their votes have been accurately recorded. Pilot systems already exist, but they are too complicated for voters to use; the report calls for more research to simplify them.