There’s nothing more fundamental to a democratic republic such as ours as the act of voting: Citizens heading to the polls to elect their local, state and federal representatives, approve or reject referendums or weigh in on state constitutional amendments. The security, fairness and integrity of that process are — or should be — among the top priorities of our elected leaders.
That’s why recent changes at the State Board of Elections in Richmond should be welcome news to Virginia voters.
Many folks have been obsessed over the possibility of persons ineligible to vote gaining access to the ballot box — undocumented immigrants, non-citizens such as green-card holders or ex-felons who’ve not yet had their civil rights restored — or persons casting multiple votes. Out of those fears have come initiatives such as voter ID laws and curtailing of early voting or no-excuses absentee voting opportunities. The fact, though, there have been so few cases of ineligible voters casting a ballot pretty much invalidates those concerns we’ve heard so much about.
What we should be worried about, when it comes to security of the voting process, are the well-documented attempts by foreign actors, either on their own or on behalf of a foreign power, to access the computer networks and databases on which our election system depends.
We know, going back to the 2016 presidential election, that Russian parties — either state offices or affiliated agencies — were attacking the election systems of many states, if not the majority. Cyberattacks were detected both at the state and local levels, where security is often the weakest, and the American public still doesn’t have a full picture of the extent of the problem. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio revealed earlier this month that Russian actors were successful in breaching at least two counties’ elections network, but the full extent of the breach is unknown to the public. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election, informed Florida officials that it appeared as if Russians had accessed voter information databases, but not the systems dealing with tabulating the official results.
Florida has long been a battleground state in presidential elections — these days, officials of that state should expect to be on the frontline of any electoral cyberwar. But Virginia only recently has emerged as one of the key political battlegrounds of the 21st century in the presidential contests of 2008, 2012 and 2016.
But the 2016 battle, with no incumbent on the ticket, may well prove to have been a watershed for Virginia elections officials when it comes to running an election in the cyber age.
Back in 2017, Virginia was one of the states identified early on as a target of foreign actors with attempts to access — or at least test the security of — local municipalities’ networks. Exactly what took place is still classified by the federal government. After almost 40 years of being reliably in one party’s column at the presidential level, it wouldn’t be far off to say a degree of complacency had settled in at the State Board of Elections: We just weren’t prepared for the spotlight’s glare that being a battleground state brings.
We saw this not just in the news that Russian actors had targeted Virginia systems but also in more mundane ways. Remember the 2017 elections for the House of Delegates when residents of several districts discovered they actually lived in districts other than the one in which they had been voting since the 2011 redistricting? It was a problem known at the local level, to a degree, that had been passed up the chain of command to the board of elections but with little or no reaction. Then there is the matter of voting methods in the commonwealth. It has only been in recent years that the last of the old, mechanical voting machines was retired, while many localities use the once-touted touchscreen voting method that’s now fallen out of favor because of security concerns. Localities now see systems such as the one used in Lynchburg — paper ballots that read by an OCR scanner — as the most reliable and secure.
So as Virginia and the nation prepare for the looming 2020 presidential election, we are glad to see recent changes at the state elections board that, we believe, put greater emphasis on both security and training of local election workers.
Beginning July 1, the elections board will have six new positions, created by the General Assembly to address deficiencies in the department identified by a state audit: two training positions to assist local registrars, an administrative position, two voter list maintenance positions and a position to work with GIS mapping systems used to assign voters and draw voting district lines. Also, earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam replaced all three commissioners of the state board with a mandate to hone in on election security.
The 2020 presidential election is only 18 months away, and Virginia, once again, will be a key battleground. We should spare no expense in being prepared for all contingencies.