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How Politics Could Put the Reliability of Future Elections at Risk

Eliminating the Election Assistance Commission would likely delay the process of replacing the nation’s aging and insecure elections infrastructure.

Thanks to a lack of political will in Washington to fix election security problems, we’ll likely have the same fears that hackers will target our voting machines and voter databases on election day in 2020 that we had last fall.

Advocates for election security and reliability say a bill that Republican leaders recently advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives would make it unlikely that a crucial nationwide upgrade of voting technology can be completed in time for the 2020 election.

The House Administration Committee voted earlier this month to approve a bill that would eliminate the Elections Assistance Commission. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Gregg Harper of Mississippi, said the agency has “outlived its usefulness,” and that terminating it would save taxpayers $14 million. (Congress provided $9.6 million to the EAC in fiscal year 2016, according to the Congressional Research Service.)

The bill’s opponents say that in fact the EAC has never been more necessary. They say eliminating the agency will create uncertainty and confusion among vendors and state election officials and delay the replacement of aging machines.

The nation’s election technology is in rough shape. In 2014, the bipartisan presidential commission on election administration warned that by the end of the decade the majority of the voting machines in the U.S. would reach the end of their lifetimes. In 2015, 43 states were using systems that were at least 10 years old, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Older systems are also more vulnerable to software errors, and many states are still using technology that does not produce paper records that can be used to double-check accuracy. Researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that at least some models are vulnerable to hackers.

“The EAC has a vital role to play in responding to these challenges,” Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, and Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of its Washington office, wrote in a letter to the leaders of the House Administration Committee. Forty-seven states use the technical standards the EAC makes for voting equipment, and the agency is in the process of developing new standards to help states purchase new, secure equipment.

Congress created the EAC in 2002 as part of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which President George W. Bush signed into law in response to the ballot counting fiasco that stained the 2000 presidential election between Bush and Al Gore. That legislation put aside more than $2 billion for states to replace obsolete voting systems, and part of the EAC’s charge was to set technical standards for new equipment.

The Constitution gives states power over their elections, and disagreement over how much authority to give the federal government over voting technology is in part ideological. Still, there ought to be bipartisan agreement that the EAC’s work on standards is important, argues Gregory Miller, cofounder of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, a nonprofit devoted to election technology research. Elections are a matter of national security, he says, and in federal contests, “we need uniformity in standards in order to ensure consistency in performance.”

Miller says that if Congress is going to kill the EAC, it must figure out another way to complete and roll out the new standards so that vendors and states can get moving as soon as possible. “Surely you aren’t just going to take all this work and throw it in the dumpster.”

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