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IU professors publish report on ways to combat threats to voting system



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A woman waits in line to vote in Georgia's primary election on June 9 in Atlanta. Kelley School of Business professors wrote a report that was accepted by Washington and Lee Law Review in March, which addressed voting security and how the U.S. can better protect its voting process. Tribune News Service

Kelley School of Business professors wrote a report that was accepted by Washington and Lee Law Review in March which addressed voting security and how the United States can better protect its voting process. Professors Scott Shackelford, Abbey Stemler and Anjanette Raymond and Pennsylvania State University professor Cyanne Loyle contributed to the paper, which also looked at the ways other countries are protecting their democratic institutions.

The paper, titled “Defending Democracy: Taking Stock of the Global Fight Against Digital Repression, Disinformation, and Election Insecurity,” discusses different methods other countries have used to prevent cyber interference with their elections, including how countries have fought digital repression and disinformation. The report will be published early next year, Shackelford said.

Shackelford, chair of IU’s cybersecurity program, said he started researching voter security in 2016 when he discovered voting infrastructure, which includes voting machines and tabulation systems, was not considered critical and therefore was not as protected by the government as telecommunications or financial systems.

Shackelford wrote a paper in 2016 for the Christian Science Monitor in favor of promoting voting infrastructure to that critical status, and in January 2017 the Department of Homeland Security made that change.

However, since the change in classification, the government has not done much to improve voting protections, Shackelford said.

“Cynically, it’s frankly updating a website,” he said. “They haven’t done the next things.”

Some steps suggested in the paper are creating a national cybersecurity safety board to investigate cyberattacks on U.S. election infrastructure, appropriating funds to update voting machines and eliminating machines using paperless ballots to ensure there is a paper trail, according to a press release from IU. 

Voting machines have not been updated nationwide since 2002 when the U.S. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which gave about $4 billion dollars to states to update voting equipment, Shackelford said. Now, that equipment, including paperless machines which make it difficult to do audits or recounts, is outdated and still being used by several swing states.

A paper trail, or using paper ballots, is important because without the paper trail it can be difficult to know what someone’s true original vote was, Shackelford said. The paper is a backup in case something happens with the machine.

“If you don’t have that paper somewhere in that process, it’s really hard to have confidence in the outcome of an election, especially when it’s quite close,” Shackelford said.

Shackelford said this also applies to mail-in voting, in which the attempts at fraud have been minimal in the U.S. and other countries.

“There’s been controversy around mail-in balloting, but when you look at the data it’s an incredibly safe and secure way to vote,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways to double check that who actually was supposed to cast the ballot actually did.”

Having these paper ballots also allows states the opportunity to do risk-limiting audits, which is when states check the accuracy of their overall voting numbers by taking samples of ballots cast and comparing them to the reported outcome, Shackelford said. Rhode Island, Virginia, Nevada, California, Georgia and Washington use this process.

Shackelford said one of the biggest threats in the upcoming election is the issue of disinformation on social media. The way to address this problem is by holding social media organizations accountable for addressing the accounts spreading this information, Shackelford said.

"With regards to disinformation in particular, the U.S. government could work with the EU to globalize the self-regulatory Code of Practice on Disinformation for social media firms and thus avoiding thorny First Amendment concerns," Raymond said in a press release.

Shackelford said the best way to go against this disinformation, which sometimes can contain inaccurate reports of polling results, is to go out and vote in whatever form people are able to. He also suggested going to vote in person early if you can’t vote by mail-in to avoid large crowds.

“The goal for a lot of different groups, both foreign and domestic, is to depress turnout,” he said. “Frankly the way that we let those groups win is by not participating.”

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