Free and fair elections are a central pillar of our democracy. Voting is not only a right granted to citizens in the United States, but as we have seen around the world, a privilege many of us sometimes take for granted. Most of us have long assumed that we can show up at our local polling precinct, present our required identification, make our personal and private choices, and we're done, with the knowledge that our votes are safe, secure and reliably counted.
Then came the 2016 election, and doubts were seeded that maybe American elections weren't so secure after all.
To continue to have free and open elections in every future cycle, we all need to have confidence that our elections are safe, our voting machines are secure, and we are free from election manipulation and interference. The good news is that on the state and local level, Michigan election officials and county and local clerks are working overtime to achieve those goals, and by and large are succeeding. Nationally, efforts are underway to counter hacking and unscrupulous efforts to impact elections. National experts now view Michigan as a leader in election safety and security, having improved its vulnerability to security risks from as recently as the 2016 election.
As we now know, the 2016 Presidential Election Investigation Fast Facts explained and the Mueller Report confirmed, there were numerous hacking incidents and efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential elections, from Russian hackers, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the Russian government. Intelligence about these efforts was shared “with lawmakers suggesting Russia's purpose for meddling in the election was to sway voters towards Trump, rather than broadly undermining confidence in the system,” Fast Facts noted. By September 2017, in a blog post, Facebook stated that more than 3,000 advertisements during the previous election cycle posted on their social network between June 2015 and May 2017 were linked to Russia. The Washington Post reported the ads came from a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency.
It was reported that a number of the Russian-linked Facebook ads were geographically targeted to reach residents in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Further, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified certain selected states that hackers had targeted their election infrastructure before the November 8, 2016 vote. DHS stated that although vote counting systems were not impacted, computer networks containing voter information may have been scanned by Russian hackers.
Some states did report attempts to infiltrate their systems, although election officials in Michigan have said the state was not penetrated, largely because of Michigan's decentralized system of voting, where authority is held by county and local clerks, and not at the state level, making it more difficult to infiltrate with its numerous authorities and diffusions of control.
“There is no evidence voting machines in Michigan have been compromised or that votes have been changed,” stated Michael Doyle, Michigan Secretary of State communications office. “However, post-election audits are a critical safeguard to detect any attempt to compromise voting equipment. Every precinct uses paper ballots, which are retained and can be reviewed and recounted.”
Michigan is one of eight states in the United States that administers elections on a local level. As Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson pointed out, “Involving 83 county clerks, 280 city clerks and 1,240 township clerks, Michigan's elections system is administered by 1,603 county and local election officials making it the most decentralized elections system in the nation.”
The United States does not have one electoral system, nor one organization or federal department that oversees elections throughout the country, which dates back to the creation of our federal government system. Unlike some other countries, such as Canada and Australia, which have parliamentary governments run by independent government electoral commissions, our federal system means that each state controls its own elections, with elections run by state and local governments.
The highly decentralized nature of Michigan's election system can be traced to the small town traditions of 17th century New England. In Michigan, it gives responsibility to 83 county clerks and numerous local clerks.
“The first organized local governments on the American continent, New England towns of the 17th century, gave rise to town meetings and the election of citizens to locally controlled offices and boards,” the secretary of state website said. “From New England, the concept of local self-governance spread south and west to a number of mid-Atlantic states and most of the midwest, including Michigan. The establishment of townships in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin is rooted in the county and township governments put in place in the region after the enactment of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Today, Michigan is one of 20 states in the nation that maintains a township level of government.”
In Michigan, state election law designates the secretary of state as Michigan's "chief election officer" with supervisory control over local election officials in the performance of their election related duties. The secretary of state oversees the board of state canvassers, bureau of elections, county clerks, county election commissions, board of county canvassers, city and township clerks, city and township election commissions and city and township boards of canvassers.
That does not mean that the secretary of state's office is capable of providing all of the funding for elections, whether they're a presidential election or a local contest. Most local municipalities shoulder much of the costs of elections, from training and staffing electoral staff to counts and audits. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) said, “Elections are usually run at the county level, though in several New England and Midwestern states they are run at the city or township level. This means that there are more than 10,000 jurisdictions that have primary responsibility for running elections in the country.”
In Michigan, the state reimburses localities only for the actual costs of statewide special elections.
More of the financial burden, in the last 50 years, has been moved to states from local jurisdictions, NCSL said. “This transition began with the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s, but accelerated in the 1990’s and 2000’s.”
A big push began in 1933 with the National Voter Registration Act, which required state election offices to work with state departments of motor vehicles and other agencies to offer voter registration, leading to our voter registration rolls.
Yet, voting equipment, training and/or compensation for local election officials, certain types of elections, ballots, voter information dissemination, and statewide voter registration databases required by Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, are costs that the state can chip in to offset county and locals costs.
“State and local election officials are on the front lines of a cyberwar with sophisticated nation-state rivals and other malevolent actors,” a paper, “Defending Elections: Federal Funding Needs for State Election Security” by the Brennan Center for Justice, stated. “It is not reasonable to expect each of these state and local election offices to independently defend against hostile nation-state actors.”
The Brennan Center paper pointed out that in 2016, Russian hackers penetrated computer networks in two counties in Florida, using information they had gleaned from a software vendor, and that same software vendor “may have opened a gap for hackers to alter the voter rolls in North Carolina… Episodes like these undermine faith in our democratic system, and steps must be taken to prevent them from occurring again.”
So how do we know our elections are safe and secure, and the votes we cast are true? A series of steps undertaken on all levels of government are working to ensure just that, from new voting machines purchased in 2017 in every single municipality in Michigan, utilizing paper ballots which then leave a paper trail, instituting audits, and working to combat cybersecurity infiltration and misinformation on social media.
“Nationally, the threat from foreign interference is real. Anyone in government who has looked at this, on both sides of the aisle, recognize the Russians definitely interfered with the 2016 election, and it's continuing for 2020, and maybe other bad actors will jump in as well,” said David Becker, executive director, Center for Election Innovation & Research. “The main goal isn't to change votes – that's really hard to do, and is even harder than in 2016. But the goal is to have voters in the U.S. and other countries lose confidence in elections and in their democracy – and we know they have been widely successful in that.”
Becker, who also serves on Michigan's Election Assistance Commission (EAC), explained how that is being achieved. “We have seen candidates questioning election results and refusing to accept the results of elections – sometimes when they win; especially when the lose. They're using terms like 'the elections are rigged.' It's damaging to the fabric of democracy.”
“Elections are the foundation of our republic and our indirect democracy. It is the fundamental process that citizens engage in their democracy, and they're critical,” said David Dulio, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University and a professor of political science. He said it's logical that Russia and other foreign governments would have an interest in who wins or loses in our elections.
“It's one thing for citizens and political junkies to engage in nefarious social media postings, but for Russian Facebook postings, which is what I understand they were, none of that is okay,” Dulio said. “It is more of a problem when a foreign entity does it. What we want is a healthy and productive debate and anytime something leads us away from that, it's a problem.”
Becker concurred. “The goal is to undermine confidence in elections, and in this way Russia has been very successful,” he said. “When nations like the United States are preoccupied with divisions and with results of elections, the autocrats win. Democracy is the threat to autocracy.”
“These kinds of activities have been seen in other parts of the world, in Eastern Europe, Russia,” Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-Rochester, Rochester Hills) said. “As a CIA officer and at the Pentagon, I watched them fight tooth and nail to stop Montenegro from entering NATO (applied in December 2009; accepted June 2017). From what I read in the Mueller Report and assessment reports from intelligence, and now that I'm in Congress, in classified reports, it's just an amped up version of what we've seen the Russians do in other countries,” pointing out that in the Mueller Report, the third-highest ranking individual at Facebook reported the Russians paid for $100,000 worth of social media ads and disinformation in 2016, reaching $129 million worth of Americans. “It's incredible. That's a phenomenal return on investment.
“We know that Michigan and other swing states were particularly targeted,” Slotkin continued.
Slotkin, along with Republican colleague Rep. Mike Sherill of New Jersey, and five other freshman Democrats, in June 2018 created the Task Force Sentry, focused on crafting legislation to keep foreign adversaries from interfering with the U.S. political system. Each week, the seven freshman members of Congress meet in secret in a spare House conference room to hear a speaker, read reports, go over information or discuss a problem they feel their more senior colleagues haven't done enough to address – election security. Each of them come from a background in the military, CIA or technology field. “It's the first bipartisan response to Russian intervention in Congress,” Slotkin pointed out. “In Congress, most of the work is done by staffers. This is unusual because we're doing it.”
The task force wasn't meant to be small, or exclusive. “I opened it up to everyone,” she said, “but only freshman showed up.”
Recently, she said, the head of election security in Michigan presented to the task force. “We saw horrible, despicable ads and posts about Muslims and African Americans,” Slotkin said. “To me, no foreign entity, no foreign government should be able to influence our election, or be able to purchase an ad on social media. I felt it was a real gap in protecting us in 2020.”
In late July, Slotkin, along with Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) and Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), introduced the FIRE (Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections) Act, a bill that would help prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections by requiring political campaigns to report attempts by foreigners to influence U.S. elections to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and FBI. The FIRE Act stipulates that any foreign nationals attempting to make campaign contributions or offer information or coordination must be reported to federal authorities within a week.
The bill would apply to all campaigns, from presidential to state to local races.
Slotkin said she has been working with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), to get her bill to be an amendment to one of Lofgren's bills, “so it moves things along faster,” and not get bogged down in committee as a stand-alone bill. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
One of her greatest concerns, Slotkin said, is the ability for someone to manipulate the results of an election. “What if Fox reported one set of results, and another channel reported another set – who do people believe? It would sow dissension and distrust,” she pointed out. “We have to be sure we're protecting every link in the chain. Everything needs to be checked and rechecked.”
On a more local level, when we go to vote in Michigan, work from two different successive secretary of states to county clerks and local municipal clerks are making our elections much more secure and impervious to potential manipulation and intrusion.
As recently as 2016, there were concerns about Michigan's elections and the safety and security of voting machines. At that time, Michigan received a “C” rating nationally on its machines by the Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress. Liz Kennedy, senior director at the center, said Michigan's paper ballots were a reassurance, but they were concerned about the lack of mandatory audits. Skip ahead just three years, and experts all over the country are pointing to Michigan as a state going about elections in the right way.
“The good news in Michigan is Michigan is ahead of the game,” Center for Election & Research's David Becker stated.
Key important steps are everyone in Michigan votes on paper ballots that are hand marked, then inserted into scannable machines. And absolutely nothing is connected to the internet, not even voter registration identification rolls, which if they are transmitted to election workers are done over secure networks similar to secured cellular phone lines. And Michigan has been a national pioneer in something called risk-limiting post election audits, where a percentage of scanned ballots are then rechecked for accuracy after the election for verification.
“Michigan has taken steps to keep our election system secure and will continue to make the necessary improvements in advance of upcoming elections,” Doyle, with the Michigan Secretary of State, said. “The secretary of state and bureau of elections are building on several longstanding accuracy and integrity practices and are drawing on the expertise of local and national experts, including those who Secretary (Jocelyn) Benson has asked to serve on an Election Security Advisory Commission. Members are advising the department on the implementation of reforms and best practices. One of her first acts as secretary of state was to join the Electronic Registration Information Center, a multi-state partnership to ensure that voter rolls are as accurate as possible.”
He said Benson also plans to expand risk-limiting post election audits, to standardize poll worker training, and to work the state legislature and governor to enact tough penalties for election equipment tampering.
Election voter equipment and its technology was updated by Benson's predecessor, former Secretary of State, now state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), in 2017 and 2018. Johnson was previously Oakland County Clerk for two terms, and currently chairs the state Senate's elections committee.
Following the 2016 election, “the federal government mandated everyone get new machines,” Johnson said. Over the years following the 2000 presidential election, and the debacle with Florida's “hanging chads,” lots of voting machines that were old and obsolete throughout the state had been upgraded, including in Oakland County and Detroit, and as she pointed out, there are a lot of election machines in the city of Detroit. “We had machines that were very good. Detroit had gotten lots of new ones, and that's a lot of precincts. The feds just dropped a bomb on county clerks that they had to get new machines.
“(As secretary of state), I was very concerned to make sure we had good machines that worked for our clerks,” she continued, noting that for 99 percent of the year, voting machines are stored away, they need to be kept clean and temperature controlled. “As we came around, I had saved a lot of federal money – about $30 million – from HAVA (Help America Vote Act). I went to Governor Snyder numerous times, and he became for it, and then the governor and legislature added $10 million, so I had $40 million. I didn't want some communities to have new machines and others not. So we got $40 million to give to all Michigan communities for new machines.
“The other machines were 10 years old, and technology had changed. Elections are too important to rely on old equipment,” Johnson said.
The equipment was first used in the 2018 primary elections.
The requirements of having paper ballots which can also print out more ballots, that are scannable, with built-in layers of security utilizing the latest technology narrowed the field to three national companies with equipment: Election Systems and Software (ES&S) of Omaha, Nebraska; Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas; and Dominion Voting Systems of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Each county in Michigan could choose which machine system to go with for their local municipalities. If counties chose ES&S, which cost about $52 million, the state would pick up 100 percent of the cost of the new machines for the municipalities. If they chose, Dominion, the cost was about $70 million, with the state paying 82 percent of the cost. The most expensive machines were Hart InterCivic, at $82 million, with the state paying up to 72.6 percent of the costs. In addition, local communities had to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 per precinct for the new machines.
Bloomfield Township Clerk Jan Roncelli, who was on the selection committee for Oakland County, said while all the machines met the qualifications, Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown made the final decision to go with Hart. Roncelli and Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton both said they have been pleased with Hart, with the company regularly servicing and updating the machines and software.
Joe Rozell, director of elections, Oakland County, said they went with Hart because they are federally certified, while ES&S is not. While a majority of Michigan companies went with Dominion, Brown said they came equipped with only 2G, while Hart is upgraded to 3G.
“We went through the state RFP certification process, and I sat on the committees with the key people at the state level, in IT with Department of Technology, Management and Budget and cybersecurity,” Rozell said.
“I negotiated better terms with Hart for the county, including that Hart had to open a county office in Oakland County,” Brown said. “I wanted to make sure we had support for our local clerks.”
Doyle, from Benson's Secretary of State's office, said all of the machines are next generation optical scan machines. “The machines have better technology, but, as before, still use paper ballots scanned through electronic tabulators and they aren't connected to the internet. Paper ballots are widely considered a best practice for election security.”
This summer, the Associated Press (AP) wrote that new voting machines by ES&S and Hart are running on old software that will be outdated and vulnerable to hackers – notably because they use Windows 7 operating systems that reach its “end of life” in early 2020 – before the 2020 primaries and national election.
“That's a red herring issue,” said Marian K. Schneider, president, Verified Voting, a non-partisan non-profit that advocates for legislation and regulation that promotes accuracy, transparency and verifiability of elections. “It doesn't matter which operating system or software it's using because it only matters if you can check and verify the voting.”
Hart sent out an email to all local clerks countering the AP's information, stating “Hart's Verity Voting devices do not run on Windows 7. Recent press coverage...misidentified Verity's actual operating system, Windows Embedded 7 (WES7). WES7 is a separate operating system from Windows 7...(and) is a customizable operating system that provides enhanced security.”
Hart assured officials that they will transition to a minimized, embedded version of Windows 10 years prior to WES7's projected end of life, and it is in the midst of partnering with Microsoft on ElectionGuard, an open-source software development kit and support tools to allow voting system vendors, like Hart, to implement verification within a voting system, which enables both election workers and members of the public to verify that an election was counted accurately.
Further removing concerns that voting machines are tainted is that they are not connected to the internet.
“Election workers never download anything,” Barton said. “Our IT people make sure all of the security measures are up-to-date on the electronic poll books. They strip them down and clean everything. They also provide paper copies of everything, every poll book. At every precinct, if something were to be broken, we could carry on just like we used to.”
She said they are also in regular contact with the Department of Homeland Security, and she sits on the Michigan Election Assistance Commission with Matt Masterson from the Department of Homeland Security.
“This is a non-partisan issue. This is what we need to do as a country to safeguard our elections,” she said.
Cybersecurity threats and potential hacking concerns are a national and constant concern. Doyle said there is no evidence voting machines in Michigan have been compromised or that votes have been changed.
“Cybersecurity has become the major focus and emphasis for everyone. With election machines and software, there is no technology anywhere that is not unhackable,” said David Becker. “It's a continuum. You want to develop a system that can detect hacks, counteract them and mitigate the results. It's protect, defend and mitigate.
“Michigan has good practices because it has hand-marked ballots,” he continued. “The most important is best practices around audits. You want to protect your systems. Audits will detect that.”
He explained with a paperless vote – something that 16 states still have – there is only a digital record, which the public cannot see if a count needs to be confirmed, and it is more susceptible to manipulation.
“It's very hard to do a recount or audit in a transparent way with digital, and with cyber threats, I would not advocate that today,” Becker said.
Schneider, of Verified Voting, noted the importance of detecting if something goes wrong if it does happen.
“There are more safeguards in place than in 2016 and 2018,” she said. A critical issue is providing clerks with the resources they need to do their job. “So if we're counting ballots by computers, you have to make sure there is a verifiable process to assure that machine is reflecting your choice – so the machine is printing what they chose.”
As for remote voting, whether from laptops, smart phones or other devices – in today's world, it's not a secure option. Even military personnel who vote remotely must follow up with a mailed-in paper ballot.
“Any time voting is done over the internet you deal with interference and with the threat landscape because you open it up to greater possibilities,” Schneider said. “Cybersecurity experts agree there is no way to secure a vote over the internet, including sending it by email, fax or uploading to web portals or voting by phone or tablet. There's just too much risk, and there's no mechanism to detect if something has gone wrong and be able to recover it. The first has to do with being able to authenticate the user and permit that only one ballot is issued. You can't track back like you can with almost any other transaction online. The ballots are separated from the voter's identity, because they're secret ballots.”
The last step to strong, safe elections is performing audits post-elections, which is being piloted in Michigan currently and a priority for Secretary of State Benson. Rochester Hills was one of the first localities to undergo a risk-limiting audit, in December 2018, taking a sample of ballots that provides a statistical balance that can then go back and verify machine to hand-marked ballot, to make sure they match.
If there is a hack, there would not be a match, and every single hand-marked ballot would then be hand-counted.
“Audits can pull for candidates, proposals, anything. If it matches statistically with the machine and ballots, it means the machine meets the threshold of confidence,” Rochester Hills' Barton said.
“I think Michigan is in a very strong position heading into the 2020 election,” said Liz Howard, counsel, Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. “We worked with election officials across the country to pilot risk-limiting audits. The first was conducted in Oakland County – Tina Barton was the first, and she has been terrific. For the first round of testing, we had officials from around the country come and observe what you were doing and testing. You have been a hub and a lab for these procedures.
“Michigan is one of the leaders in the country in risk-limiting audits,” Howard continued, noting that state law does not mandate it in Michigan – only Colorado, Nevada, Rhode Island and Virginia currently require them – “but election officials are doing this voluntarily, figuring out what to do to make elections more secure.
“No machine is 100 percent secure, but when you couple them with paper ballots and low voltage audits, it's resilient,” Howard said. “In the event of any interference, whether intentional or unintentional, it can reflect the voter's intent.”