Voting at the federal, state, and local levels is fundamental to American democracy, and citizens must have confidence in electoral systems, processes, and results.
Electoral integrity and voter participation are enhanced by (1) ensuring that everyone with a legal right to vote is able to do so; (2) protecting such critical election infrastructure as storage facilities, polling places, and centralized vote tabulation locations; and (3) safeguarding such information and communications technology as voter registration databases, voting machines, and other electoral management systems.
Some of the relevant issues include:
- Foreign intervention and technology utilization. In 2016, Russian government-affiliated cyber actors (1) conducted operations to identify vulnerabilities in U.S. voting infrastructure in all 50 states and (2) undertook cyber operations to enflame societal divisions and undermine confidence in our democracy. Although there is no evidence that individual votes were changed in the last presidential election, this conceivably could happen in a future election, which would lead to chaos on Election Day. New technologies such as “deep fakes” could further roil elections in the future.
- Rules, processes, and locations for voting. Voter participation is impacted by decisions made by states and localities. States have the primary responsibility for conducting elections, and there is great variation in the types of voting laws enacted. Some states, for example, have implemented automatic voter registration and vote-by-mail to increase participation. To protect against voter fraud, many states have passed laws on voter identification and voter database purging. Localities manage elections with limited resources, especially in rural areas. Practical local decisions about where to put polling places can impact participation. Decisions about laws, regulations, and polling locations must be made and implemented in a fair and equitable manner to ensure that all citizens have equal access to the ballot box.
- Gerrymandering. With both chambers of most state legislatures now controlled by one political party, the creation of gerrymandered districts to maintain that party’s dominance has become more common. In response, some states have passed citizen initiatives to create independent commissions for the drawing of districts.
- Lack of voter participation. Voter turnout and trust in the political process continue to below, as is an understanding of how the electoral process works. In a typical presidential election year, for example, no more than 60 percent of the voting-eligible population chooses to participate. Only about 40 percent vote during the midterms. And turnout in local elections tends to be even lower than in federal and statewide elections.
The U.S. election system is highly decentralized. Public agencies and administrators have critical roles to play in ensuring fair and safe elections. In most cases, the nation’s counties are responsible for actually running our elections. Decentralization and lack of standardization create a number of challenges, but this structure can be a strength from a security perspective.
As part of the Grand Challenge to “Ensure Electoral Integrity and Enhance Voter Participation,” the Academy will work with stakeholders to determine how to:
- Protect critical electoral infrastructure from cyber and other attacks;
- Identify needed electoral reforms and innovative mechanisms to engage the public;
- Promote effective practices in state voting laws and practices, including the potential role of independent redistricting commissions;
- Promote public confidence in election systems and results;
- Ensure fair access to the ballot box;
- Educate and train the election workforce; and
- Address the intergovernmental issues and tensions inherent in election administration in a federal system.
This is an illustrative list of topics. As the Grand Challenges campaign kicks off and progresses, other issues can and will be addressed based on stakeholder feedback about critical needs and opportunities.