Making U.S. Elections More Secure Wouldn't Cost Much But No One Wants To Pay Security experts estimate it would cost roughly $400 million to replace voting machines and add paper audits. It's about the same amount the Pentagon spent on military bands last year.
NPR logo

Making U.S. Elections More Secure Wouldn't Cost Much But No One Wants To Pay

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/534597226/534597227" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Making U.S. Elections More Secure Wouldn't Cost Much But No One Wants To Pay

Making U.S. Elections More Secure Wouldn't Cost Much But No One Wants To Pay

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/534597226/534597227" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Election security experts estimate that it will cost $400 million to protect the nation's voting systems from attack. The Pentagon spent more than that last year on military bands, on instruments, uniforms and travel expenses. So $400 million is not a lot of money when it comes to national defense.

But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, getting funds for voting is always a struggle.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Last week, Maine Senator Angus King asked Homeland Security official Jeanette Manfra how local election officials can protect their voting equipment from hacking by Russians or anyone else. She had three pieces of advice. First, don't connect your voting machines to the Internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEANETTE MANFRA: Second, ensure that you have an auditing process in place where you can identify anomalies throughout the process.

ANGUS KING: But doesn't auditing mean a paper trail, a paper backup?

MANFRA: Yes, sir. I would recommend a paper backup.

FESSLER: That's pretty much the advice most cybersecurity experts give. But right now, more than a dozen states use electronic voting machines that have no paper-ballot backup, which can be used to help detect whether votes have been changed. Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice says getting such equipment would go a long way toward protecting one of the core functions of democracy.

LARRY NORDEN: I don't think that would cost a huge amount of money. I think it would probably cost between $200 million and $300 million to replace that equipment.

FESSLER: Four hundred million dollars tops, but try finding the money. In Arkansas, where some counties still use paperless touch screen machines, a $30 million plan to replace voting equipment statewide hasn't been funded. The Virginia Legislature rejected Governor Terry McAuliffe's request two years ago for $28 million to upgrade that state's voting machines, some of which are also paperless. And in Ohio, officials say their voting system is secure but will be even more secure if they can replace their aging equipment by 2020. Timothy Ward is president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

And where will you get the money?

TIMOTHY WARD: (Laughter) That's the $64,000 question.

FESSLER: Ward says the options are limited. Either counties will have to come up with the funds...

WARD: I don't see that happening. Or the state's going to have to step up. And I don't see that happening. Or the feds are going to have to step up. And it's going to be who blinks first.

FESSLER: And right now, in Washington, no one's blinking. President Trump's budget includes no new funding for states to improve election security. But the Department of Homeland Security is offering to help states figure out where their systems are vulnerable. They recommend having a paper trail so that election results can be audited. The idea is to compare the electronic-vote tally with the paper one. Ed Felten is a cybersecurity expert at Princeton University.

ED FELTEN: And if those match up and if you've sampled enough ballots in the right way, then you can have high confidence statistically that the election was done correctly, or that if there were any errors, they were not big enough to affect the result.

FESSLER: Right now about half the states conduct post-election audits, but few do the targeted ones that many security experts say are needed. Norden of the Brennan Center says it wouldn't cost a lot.

NORDEN: We're certainly talking in the tens of thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in very close cases.

FESSLER: He says the price tag pales in comparison to the security it would provide.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR SONG, "ATLANTIS")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.