To Hackproof our Elections, We Need to Rebuild Voters' Trust—And Vice Versa | Opinion

While millions of Americans excitedly await the upcoming Super Tuesday primary contests, Iowa's disastrous experience with a results-reporting app has joined 2016's Russian influence campaigns in extending a shadow over our democratic processes. In each case, technologies promising to enrich our democracy and broaden participation in it opened the door for both malice and error to blemish voter trust and confidence.

The foundation of our democracy is trust. Voters must believe that the institutions, the processes, and the norms that underpin our electoral system work properly and their results are produced fairly—or that system could collapse. As we modernize the tools of our democracy for the digital era, we must also ensure that technology designed to improve the speed and accessibility of our democracy does not at the same time erode the foundation of trust that underpins it.

In the end, even if neither Iowa's misplaced reliance on an undercooked app nor Russia's cyber-enabled information operations impacted the integrity of the ballot box, they didn't have to. Technology failures far away from any votes can too easily be weaponized to damage Americans' faith in those votes, making that faith an attractive target for our adversaries and a dangerous blind spot for our mistakes.

Our work on the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission has made clear to us just how brittle our institutions can become when a layer of technological complexity is added without adequate security and resilience to protect it from failure. The government has made important progress toward understanding and mitigating the risk from technology, led by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, but such risk remains an urgent concern across government and society.

This should not stop us from always striving to make our elections more inclusive, accessible, and responsive to the public. But everywhere our electoral system intersects with a computer system, we must ask why that intersection is necessary and how it can be best secured.

Our Cyberspace Solarium Commission found that the most important tool in securing our elections is painfully obvious: paper. With a paper-based backbone, our election system will be better secured against cyberattacks, resilient to technological failures, and accountable for voter verification and post-election audits. State and local governments should absolutely employ ballot marking machines that make voting easier and more accessible—but only if they also retain this paper-based backbone. After an initial rush to electronic voting machines nationwide, election officials are realizing one of our oldest technologies remains the most secure. Unfortunately a half dozen states still use voting machines with no paper trail—a digital disaster waiting to happen.

To truly secure our elections, our Commission is urging policymakers to focus their attention far earlier than election day and think more holistically about our electoral system. Voter rolls and databases must be secured, sufficient provisional ballots must be available, resilient procedures must be adopted, election officials must be properly trained, and campaign best practices must be widely deployed. Too many states have been slow to take these steps or lack the capacity to do so. Unfortunately, the federal government's best tool for ensuring states are successful in doing so—the Election Assistance Commission (EAC)—is in urgent need of rejuvenation and reform. With more reliable funding, adequate staff, and tech-savvy leadership, the EAC can be the partner states need to secure their elections against twenty-first century threats.

The most important partner in ensuring our democracy's security, however, is us: the voters. We must become better at inoculating ourselves against threats to our trust in one another — whether those threats are mistakes or malice. We cannot be so willing to assume every delay in election results is a conspiracy. Our litmus-test for truth cannot be whether it is said by someone we like, or something to which we agree. Rather, we must "trust, but verify." Civics education, digital literacy programs, and public awareness initiatives can ensure Americans of all walks of life have the tools they need to root out disinformation while bolstering trust in our shared values.

Maintaining the trust and confidence of voters must be the focus of all our efforts. While we know election day will always come around again soon, our trust in what that day represents will be much harder to find once it's gone.

Angus King is a U.S. Senator from Maine and Co-Chair of the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission. Suzanne Spaulding is Senior Adviser for Homeland Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.