American elections face dire and unprecedented security threats. Ahead of the 2016 election, Russia launched a two-pronged campaign to sow chaos and doubt into our democracy. Hackers “scanned” election systems in all 50 states and attempted to breach systems in at least 21 states—exposing major weaknesses in our election infrastructure, regulations, and personnel readiness. At the same time, Russian internet trolls orchestrated a divisive, digital disinformation campaign to agitate and misdirect the American public. Threats to American election security have evolved and proliferated since 2016 as enemies experiment with new tactics and inspire new malicious actors.
Declining public confidence is perhaps the greatest risk to our democracy’s health today and is a key objective of our adversaries. In a recent poll conducted for C-SPAN, 58 percent of voters expressed concern that foreign governments pose a threat to American elections, and a mere 31 percent of Americans have confidence that the government has done enough to protect elections from foreign interference. Conspiracy theories of vote rigging, often elevated by President Trump, have exacerbated negative perceptions of U.S. election integrity, particularly in the aftermath of close races, like Kentucky’s 2019 gubernatorial election, or administrative bungles, like the 2020 Iowa caucus. Whether perceived or legitimate, concerns that votes will not be counted accurately could negatively impact participation and increase the chance that voters and candidates will not accept the outcome of our elections.
In the face of these threats, states have largely been left to fend for themselves. Despite efforts to secure election systems and update technology across the country, state and local officials on the frontlines of our democracy are not uniformly prepared to defend against these attacks in 2020 and beyond. Federal legislation has been introduced to improve election security— offering more funding for states, mandating post-election audits, streamlining information sharing, and imposing stronger deterrents and penalties—but these efforts have generally stalled or failed.
In the absence of a strong, coordinated response from Washington, D.C., to protect our democracy, this crisis requires bold action from the states. While no one state can combat the multi-faceted and evolving set of security challenges we face, state legislators and administrators can work together as a network and lead by example to protect our elections, inspire public confidence, and spur stronger federal action. State legislators play a critical role, and the foundation of our electoral system relies on their active, informed, and vigilant engagement in election security. Whether using their platform to draw attention to solutions, supporting administrators, or passing legislation, state lawmakers have a responsibility to help strengthen election security and protect the present and future of American democracy. This brief aims to help state legislators meet this challenge.
To connect with experts, advocates, or peer legislators advancing the solutions covered here, or to receive support on legislative research, communications, or strategy, please contact the SiX Democracy Team at [email protected].