Elizabeth Warren Wants to Create a New Agency to Fix America’s Laughable Election Security

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Presidential candidate and professional plan-haver Elizabeth Warren just proposed an overhaul of American elections touching on improved cybersecurity and opening access to voting. The crux of the senator’s plan is to vastly strengthen federal oversight of federal elections from start to finish with the money and enforcement power needed to make it a reality.

Warren plans to empower the federal government by establishing a new federal agency called the Secure Democracy Administration. The SDA, which would replace the Election Assistance Commission, would be tasked with deploying new and secure federal voting machines with verifiable paper ballot trails, ballots, audits, and security training to all federal elections around the United States.

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On the other side of the aisle, Republican Representative Rodney Davis has called efforts to make paper ballots mandatory “egregious” and part of “hyper-partisan games” that include a long list of security, logistical, and fiscal concerns.

The cost of her plan, Warren estimates, could be $20 billion over 10 years. She’d pay that with her “ultra-millionaire tax” that puts a 2 percent annual tax on households with a net worth over $50 million and a 3 percent tax on “every dollar” over $1 billion in net worth.

In reality, security experts across the board recommend all elections are required to have a voter-verified paper audit trail. Earlier this month, Stanford University released a report on securing American elections. Literally, the very first recommendation was to require a voter-verified paper audit trail.

If that’s not enough, just two weeks ago a top voting machine making company called for stronger election security laws and announced that the company will no longer sell paperless voting machines. It was an important moment in an industry that’s often stubbornly resisted transparency and security reform.

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From Warren’s blog post:

The harsh truth is that our elections are extremely vulnerable to attack: Forty-two states use voter registration databases that are more than a decade old. Laughably, in 2019, some still use Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Twelve states still use paperless machines, meaning there’s no paper trail to verify vote counts. Some states don’t require post-election audits. And ten states don’t train election officials to deal with cybersecurity threats. This is a national security threat, and three years after a hostile foreign power literally attacked our democracy, we’ve done far too little to address it.

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What Warren’s plan does not have is much technical detail. What exactly is a “state-of-the-art” voting machine, what exactly are the security standards states will have to meet or risk a court battle from a would-be Warren administration?

When it comes to technology like this, the omission of extreme specificity makes sense. In many cases, the exact technical details of security change more rapidly than any one prescriptive law would keep up with. Instead, Warren’s proposed SDA would establish and update standards, create a uniform federal ballot, pay for new machines, and help states implement and comply with new federal security protocols. The federal government’s task to secure elections is already changing and will continue to change and evolve with each election. It’s a never-ending job.

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Warren’s proposal echoes a number of points made by Stanford’s Securing American Elections report earlier this month. Both require risk-limiting audits, security assessments of election machines, more funding for election cybersecurity, and extending the voting period. The overlap is considerable and, given the enormous expertise and experience behind Stanford’s report and recommendations, it’s a good sign—at least in terms of the broad goals. If she’s elected, how Warren and security experts could achieve this ambitious plan is another question.

The idea of creating an entirely new federal agency might sound like a tall order. But Warren already has a track record of accomplishment there. One of the top items on the Massachusetts senator’s resume is the formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency created in 2010 meant to police the financial sector following the 2008 recession. The CFPB exists in large part because Warren, then a Harvard Law School professor, proposed the idea in 2007.

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About the author

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Reporter in Silicon Valley. Contact me: Email poneill@gizmodo.com, Signal +1-650-488-7247