The integrity of our elections and our democracy is under attack. Bad actors — both foreign and domestic — seek to damage election infrastructure, manipulate results and sow discourse. Washington has made critical strides in shoring up security for upcoming elections and beyond, but safeguarding our elections is a race without a finish line. With cybersecurity experts warning of the severe vulnerabilities with online or mobile voting, including electronic ballot return methods, I am recommending the Legislature act on a bill I requested to protect Washington voters from cyber intrusion.
Currently, Washington allows military and civilian overseas voters to return their ballots by email or fax. Cybersecurity experts, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are imploring states to eliminate these glaring vulnerabilities. Heeding their warnings, I partnered with a bipartisan group of legislators to eliminate email and fax ballot return options for voters serving or living overseas.
The dangers of malware, ransomware and spearfishing attempts are well-known, even to the lay internet user. Most people would never knowingly click on a link or an attachment in an email sent from someone unknown to them, yet that’s exactly what county officials are required by law to do every election. This practice exposes election infrastructure to serious risk and leaves voter secrecy vulnerable.
Current technologies offering email or fax voting alternatives simply do not provide the level of security Washingtonians need to have confidence in our elections. Ballots can be intercepted in transit and altered without detection by voters or election officials. Bad actors, purporting to be voters, can also send email attachments containing malware or ransomware to infiltrate state and county networks and breach information-technology systems. Aside from our federal partners telling us email and fax ballot return is a bad idea, the Washington Air National Guard, and experts from Microsoft and the Washington League of Women Voters agree electronic ballot return must be eliminated until other return methods are thoroughly vetted by the election security community.
Some have argued removing barriers to voting for those serving or living overseas is a worthwhile security risk. While some electronic voting technologies claim to be more secure than email and fax, analyses are still being conducted on these applications, and too many unknown factors exist. As the state’s chief elections officer, that’s not a risk I’m willing to take for Washington’s 88,000 military and civilian overseas voters, or the millions remaining in our electorate.
Washington has, for many years, championed accessibility for all voters. We pioneered vote-by-mail opportunities for every voter, providing opportunities for greater engagement. We implemented automatic and same-day voter registration, as well as the Future Voter program so young people can set their civic-engagement intentions early. For our military and civilian overseas voters, we give between two and three months for them to receive their ballots, make their choices, and return paper ballots to election officials.
We must balance accessibility with security. From the collaborative work between the state and counties to modernize our election infrastructure, to the creation of the Secretary of State’s Security Operations Center, election officials have worked hard to put Washington ahead of the curve. Failing to address this outlying cyber-vulnerability only casts a shadow over the progress we have made.
The foundation of our democracy depends on fair, accessible and secure elections. The second voters lose confidence in the process or the results, our democracy crumbles. The elimination of email and fax ballot return options will improve ballot security for all voters and helps maintain trust in our elections. It is imperative the Legislature act on this critical legislation.
It’s the right thing to do.