We’re only a strong as our weakest link
Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election put a light on election security, a spotlight that is intensifying as the 2020 elections approach. Over 1,500 Michigan election officials have been focusing on election security long before the news reports and extra scrutiny. This is evidenced by the Michigan decentralized process, continued use of paper ballots in the digital age, and a myriad of other safeguards. Our numerous checks and balances offer a level of security that many other states simply refuse to take. I would be remiss if I did not also mention the thousands of civically-minded election inspectors and volunteers who play an integral role in making our elections some of the most secure in the nation.
In Michigan, all 83 County Clerks are responsible for programming the computers that run the election and tabulate votes. They do so by either programming in-house or by contracting with third-party vendors for this service. The local, city and township clerks test that programming in a public setting, known as Public Accuracy Testing, where anyone is able to attend to watch.
There have been many allegations that our “elections have been hacked.” This is a perception that has spread like a cancer through the utilization of social media, the proliferation of inaccurate stories, and filter bubble segregation in which individuals only receive information on social media that they agree with. The truth is that the elections are not being hacked.
But our minds might be.
How can we unhack the perception that our elections are not safe and secure? The answer is to invest in cyber security and ensure that county and local clerks have the resources we need to secure our elections. State cyber security is important but equally important is the security of all county and local municipalities as our elections are only as secure as our weakest link. If a small township does not have adequate security, they may unknowingly be putting their county and, in turn, the state at risk. This is also necessary since our elections are so decentralized that the local units of government (counties, cities, and townships) are much more involved in conducting the election and, therefore, in need of the resources for election security.
It is my hope that the newest federal funds find their way down to the locals in Michigan. We need cyber security experts and they are both hard to come by and not cheap to hire. We need the flexibility to update our systems more frequently. We need security products, some with long-term contracts. We need help from nonprofit security teams to deploy important security information to our colleagues. And, finally, we need more staff. Election officials have been running our elections alone for years and more clerks are retiring, not necessarily because they have reached that point in their lives but because they are done putting up with increased demands with fewer resources.
Another way to assist in the security of our elections is if more people get involved. Clerks need good people to help us run our elections and the more people who are watching and participating, the more secure our elections will be. Serving as a precinct worker on Election Day is a paid position and I am certain that your local clerk would welcome your participation.
With more people involved, more funding for cyber security measures, and greater attention to highlighting the security practices that we already employ, we can change the perception of the media and the public at large. Michigan’s election officials, like me, will continue to do our part to ensure that we are following best practices and make our elections are as safe and secure as possible.