Election Insecurity is an Issue of Human Security
Free and fair elections constitute a cornerstone of American democracy. While the 2020 presidential election was regarded as “the most secure election in American history,” (Lynch and Rosenback 2020) the proliferation of online disinformation coupled with outdated voting infrastructure and weak cybersecurity protections have left the U.S. election system vulnerable to hostile subversion. Consequentially, interference in U.S. elections has undermined public confidence in the electoral process, contributing to declines in civic engagement and acceptance of election results. Securing U.S. elections is paramount to safeguarding U.S. democracy, and fortifying the security of U.S. elections poses an urgent challenge to human security in the modern era.
As the world enters a new epoch of cyberwarfare, the U.S. election security ecosystem faces the triple threat of cybersecurity, physical security, and disinformation campaigns. Threats to U.S. election systems are exacerbated by the structure of U.S. election administration, as the decentralization of elections offers multiple points of entry for outside hackers. Many states do not have “a coherent or consistent policy to protect local IT infrastructure and election systems” (Lynch and Rosenback 2020) and many lack the proper funding to make improvements. While federal support for state and local elections was significantly enhanced following the Russian cyberattacks of 2016, funding is still inconsistent across state and local jurisdictions, and state-wide strategies to confront information technology (IT) vulnerabilities remain fragmented.
The Russian cyberattacks of 2016 and 2020 revealed glaring vulnerabilities in U.S. voting and election systems. Russian hackers intruded election networks in all 50 states, breached at least one state voter registration database, hacked local election boards, and infected multiple voting technology companies with malware. Within U.S. election infrastructure, “outdated voting machines, lack of verified paper ballots or records, and inadequate cybersecurity measure for voting machines and databases” (Mueller 2019) leaves U.S. elections dangerously vulnerable to interference by hostile foreign and domestic actors.
The consequences of U.S. election insecurity have profound implications for the strength of democracy and democratic systems nationwide. According to a recent national poll, 28% of all voters have little to no faith in the accuracy of the 2022 midterm election results. Similarly, a recent NPR survey found that 64% of the American population believes that “U.S. democracy is in crisis and is at risk of failing.” According to the same poll, decreased confidence in U.S. electoral systems can be attributed to the proliferation of online mis- and disinformation campaigns “deliberately aimed at disrupting the democratic process” (Sanchez et al 2022) by sowing division and amplifying mistrust. Declining confidence in U.S. election integrity will likely decrease civic engagement, requiring rapid interventions and ambitious solutions to reinvigorate public trust and participation in the electoral process.
According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the quality of the democratic process is drastically undermined by low voter turnout and concerns over the validity of elections, and democracy is particularly imperiled under conditions of political violence. Following the 2020 presidential election, an unprecedented number of election administrators received threats, including one-third of poll workers, according to the Journey for Democracy. While political violence has a long, entrenched history in the United States, including extensive violence on behalf of left-leaning activist groups, the past half century has witnessed a rightward shift in violent extremism with the rise of white supremacist militia groups. The upswing in right-wing extremism was on vivid display on January 6, 2021, when a coup organized by far-right militia groups breached the U.S. capitol and attempted to halt the peaceful transfer of power to the Biden Administration.
While U.S. democracy “was ailing for years before the events of January 2021” (Friedrich and Slipowitz 2022), according to Freedom House, the January 6th coup continues to disrupt democratic processes as the false narrative of the “stolen” 2020 presidential election remains widespread. While U.S. election infrastructure is acutely vulnerable to subversion by foreign, hostile actors, the largest threat to American democracy is increasingly domestic. Following the “stolen-election” conspiracies of the 2020 election, 19 state legislatures have passed 34 new laws that limit access to voting in some form, including stricter voter-identification requirements and mail-in voting capabilities. Additionally, media outlets have raised concerns that the 2022 midterm election process will be undermined by factions of the Republican Party by “staffing election offices and polling sites with partisan poll workers who are instructed to overturn votes in Democratic precincts” (Przybyla 2022).
A weak U.S. democratic system engenders human security concerns. The rise of political violence, coupled with growing domestic and foreign attempts to undermine the electoral process, present grave prospects for a free and fair midterm election on November 8. While many policymakers recognize the urgent need to strengthen U.S. democracy and fortify U.S. election infrastructure, more guardrails are needed to protect our democratic systems and the people who uphold them. Elections can prove “a powerful engine for democratic renewal,” according to Freedom House, but protecting the integrity and validity of the 2022 midterms will require an unprecedented commitment to democratic norms and reinvigoration of public trust in the electoral process.
Establishing strategies, reforms, and practices for strengthening U.S. election infrastructure against hostile enemies—both foreign and domestic—will prove paramount to confronting one of the most dangerous threats to democracy we face in the 21st century: election interference. As Jan Eliasson, President of the United Nations, once said, “the only way democracy will prove itself is through a living relationship between peoples and their governments based on trust, accountability, and the determination to deliver practical results.” Election security and human security are inseparable, and fortifying the security of elections at home and abroad will remain a pressing challenge as we head toward the next election.