The authors are experts on tax history and tax law.
Income tax forms are notoriously complicated, but there is one simple question that is missing: “Would you like to register to vote in your home state?” With over 150 million American households filing federal income tax returns each year, our annual ritual of tax filing is a missed opportunity for voter registration.
While Americans are filling out their 1040s and Schedule Cs, they should also be asked if they would like to complete a voter registration form. The form, let’s call it a Schedule VR, would be separate from tax information, and would be available to all citizens, regardless of the amount of taxes paid or refunded. A Schedule VR would be the simplest way to create a national and nearly universal registration system.
There is good evidence that tax-time voter registration would work. In Canada, annual income tax forms already offer voter registration. Overall, 96 percent of eligible voters appear on the Canadian voter registry, thanks in substantial part to the work of the Canada Revenue Agency. Elections Canada suggests that citizens “tick the box” every year on their income tax form to keep their address information up-to-date. By contrast, more than one in five eligible voters in the United States is not on the voter rolls. These unregistered voters are disproportionately likely to be young, to have lower incomes, and to be members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
Adding a voter registration option to tax filing has three major advantages: breadth, accuracy and convenience. Americans are conscientious taxpayers who see tax filing as an important civic responsibility; a Schedule VR would help ensure our voter rolls are correct and secure, with less paperwork for the citizenry.
Tax-time voter registration would build on the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which brought easy registration to departments of motor vehicles and other government agencies across the country. Taxes are filed annually, far more frequently than most people’s trips to the D.M.V. About 90 percent of the U.S. population appears on an income tax return each year, and 99.5 percent of us are estimated to appear on at least one federal tax document (like a W2 or a 1099), which is higher than the declining fraction of Americans who hold driver’s licenses. The tax system has played a vital role in Covid relief delivery precisely because few agencies can match the reach of the Internal Revenue Service.
Yes, adding voter registration to the tax filing process would represent a substantial increase in responsibility for the I.R.S. But there are precedents for the I.R.S. assisting tax filers in participating in important civic endeavors. In 1972, 1975 and 1980, Form 1040 included questions on behalf of the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, Form 1040 still has a check box allowing tax filers to donate three dollars to public campaign finance via the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. As Congress considers adding $80 billion to the I.R.S. budget, it should not overlook the full potential of tax filing to help shore up our democracy.
Voter registration at tax filing would also conform to President Biden’s mandate for new federal action to promote voter registration and turnout. Mr. Biden’s Executive Order 14019 calls upon the heads of each federal agency to produce a comprehensive plan for how they can “provide access to voter registration services and vote-by-mail ballot applications in the course of activities or services that directly engage with the public.”
For the I.R.S. to collect voter registration information and work with the states to update the voter rolls would require legislative action. But there are still immediate steps that can be taken. Janet Yellen, the secretary of the Treasury, and Charles Rettig, the I.R.S. commissioner, can mandate that voter registration services be provided at the nonprofit Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites that work with the I.R.S. to provide free tax preparation to over one million households a year.
We already know that a program like this would reach underrepresented voters. In an experiment one of us conducted in 2018, tax filers at five sites in Dallas and Cleveland were offered voter registration forms. The participants were predominantly Black and Hispanic tax filers with an average household income of less than $30,000. The program doubled the likelihood that an unregistered person would get onto the voter rolls.
In an appalling echo of Jim Crow, some states are weaponizing their voting laws to exclude voters, and especially voters of color, from participating in our democracy. Historically, federal intervention has been essential to the protection of voting rights; now is the time to use tax policy to increase voter access.
Along with other legislation, like the urgently needed John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a Schedule VR would help counteract state efforts to restrict access to the ballot box. But even beyond the current political situation, we shouldn’t overlook a powerful tool we already have in hand to ensure that Americans have a reliable way to register to vote.
Jeremy Bearer-Friend (@bearerfriend) is an associate professor at George Washington University Law School; Vanessa Williamson (@V_Williamson) is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Late one night in May, after surveillance cameras had inexplicably been turned off, three people entered the secure area of a warehouse in Mesa County, Colo., where crucial election equipment was stored. They copied hard drives and election-management software from voting machines, the authorities said, and then fled.The identity of one of the people dismayed state election officials: It was Tina Peters, the Republican county clerk responsible for overseeing Mesa County’s elections.
How the incident came to public light was stranger still. Last month in South Dakota, Ms. Peters spoke at a disinformation-drenched gathering of people determined to show that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald J. Trump. And another of the presenters, a leading proponent of QAnon conspiracy theories, projected a portion of the Colorado software — a tool meant to be restricted to election officials only — onto a big screen for all the attendees to see.The security of American elections has been the focus of enormous concern and scrutiny for several years, first over possible interference or mischief-making by foreign adversaries like Russia or Iran, and later, as Mr. Trump stoked baseless fears of fraud in last year’s election, over possible domestic attempts to tamper with the democratic process.
But as Republican state and county officials and their allies mount a relentless effort to discredit the result of the 2020 contest, the torrent of election falsehoods has led to unusual episodes like the one in Mesa County, as well as to a wave of G.O.P.-driven reviews of the vote count conducted by uncredentialed and partisan companies or people. Roughly half a dozen reviews are underway or completed, and more are being proposed.
These reviews — carried out under the banner of making elections more secure, and misleadingly labeled audits to lend an air of official sanction — have given rise to their own new set of threats to the integrity of the voting machines, software and other equipment that make up the nation’s election infrastructure.
Election officials and security experts say the reviews have created problems ranging from the expensive inconvenience of replacing equipment or software whose security has been compromised to what they describe as a graver risk: that previously unknown technical vulnerabilities could be discovered by partisan malefactors and exploited in future elections.
In Arizona, election officials have moved to replace voting machines in the state’s largest county, Maricopa, after conservative political operatives and other unaccredited people gained extensive access to them as they conducted a widely criticized review of the 2020 results. In Pennsylvania, the secretary of state decertified voting equipment in rural Fulton County after officials there allowed a private company to participate in a similar review.
And in Antrim County, Mich., a right-wing lawyer publicized a video showing a technical consultant with the same vote tabulator the county had used — alarming county officials who said that the consultant should not have had access to the device or its software.
When such machines fall into the wrong hands — those of unaccredited people lacking proper supervision — the chain of custody is broken, making it impossible for election officials to guarantee that the machines have not been tampered with, for example by having malware installed. The only solution, frequently, is to reprogram or replace them. At least three secretaries of state, in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Colorado, have had to decertify voting machines this year.Far from urging panic, experts caution that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to meddle with voting results on a nationwide scale because of the decentralized nature of American elections.
But experts say that the chain of custody for election machines exists for good reason. Already this year, three federal agencies — the Justice Department, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Election Assistance Commission — have issued updated guidance on how to handle election machines and preserve the chain of custody.“There are some serious security risks,” said J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan who studies election security. “Especially given the constellation of actors who are receiving such access.”
Republicans say they are simply looking for the answers their constituents are demanding about the 2020 election. “This has always been about election integrity,” Karen Fann, the Republican leader of the Arizona Senate, which authorized that state’s election review, said in an interview posted on the state party’s website last month. “Nothing else. Absolutely nothing else. This is about making sure that our votes are counted.”
Security experts say that election hardware and software should be subjected to transparency and rigorous testing, but only by credentialed professionals. Yet nearly all of the partisan reviews have flouted such protocols and focused on the 2020 results rather than hunting for security flaws.
In Arizona, the firm chosen by the Republican-led Legislature, Cyber Ninjas, had no previous experience auditing elections, and its chief executive has promoted conspiracy theories claiming that rigged voting machines cost Mr. Trump the state. The company also used Republican partisans to help conduct its review in Maricopa County, including one former lawmaker who was at the Jan. 6 protest in Washington that preceded the Capitol riot
In Wisconsin, the Republican Assembly speaker, Robin Vos, is pushing for a review of the 2020 results to be led by a former State Supreme Court justice who claimed in November that the election had been stolen. And in Pennsylvania, the Republican leader of the State Senate has announced hearings that he likened to a “forensic investigation” of the election, saying it could include issuing subpoenas to seize voting machines and ballots.
Christopher Krebs, the former head of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said such reviews could easily compromise voting machines. “The main concern is having someone unqualified come in and introduce risk, introduce something or some malware into a system,” he said. “You have someone that accesses these things, has no idea what to do, and once you’ve reached that point, it’s incredibly difficult to kind of roll back the certification of the machine.” Decertifying machines effectively means replacing them, often in a hurry and at great cost. Philadelphia’s elections board rejected an earlier G.O.P. request for access to the city’s election machines, saying it would cost more than $35 million to buy new ones.
In Arizona, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, told Maricopa County in May that her office would decertify 385 machines and nine vote tabulators that had been handed over for the G.O.P.-led election review. “The issue with the equipment is that the chain of custody was lost,” Ms. Hobbs said in an interview. “The chain of custody ensures that only authorized people have access to it, so that that vulnerability can’t be exploited.” Pulling compromised machines out of service and replacing them is not a foolproof solution, however. The equipment could have as-yet-undiscovered security weaknesses, Mr. Halderman said. “And this is what really keeps me up at night,” he said. “That the knowledge that comes from direct access to it could be misused to attack the same equipment wherever else it’s used.”
As an example of his concerns, Mr. Halderman pointed to Antrim County in northern Michigan, where, months after a court-ordered forensic audit in the county, a lawyer involved with the case who has frequently shared election conspiracy theories still appeared to have access to a Dominion Voting Systems ballot-scanning device and its software.
The lawyer, Michael DePerno, posted a video from a conservative news site featuring a technical consultant who went to elaborate and highly implausible lengths to try to show that votes in the county — which Mr. Trump carried by a wide margin — could have been switched. (County officials said this could not have happened.) The device and its software are only supposed to be in the possession of accredited officials or local governments. “I was shocked when I saw they had a tabulator in their video,” said Sheryl Guy, the county clerk, who is a Republican.
Neither Mr. DePerno nor Dominion Voting Systems responded to requests for comment. Easily the most bizarre breakdown of election security so far this year was the incident in Mesa County, Colo. The first sign of suspicious activity surfaced in early August, when a conservative news site, Gateway Pundit, posted passwords for the county’s election machines, the result of a separate breach in the county from the same month. A week later, the machines’ software showed up on large monitors at the South Dakota election symposium, organized by the conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.
Jena Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state, said her office had concluded that the passwords leaked out when Ms. Peters, the Mesa County clerk, enlisted a staff member to accompany her to and surreptitiously record a routine voting-machine maintenance procedure. Gateway Pundit published the passwords a week before the gathering in South Dakota. Ms. Griswold’s office is investigating and has said that Ms. Peters will not be allowed to oversee elections in November. Ms. Peters, who has called the investigation politically motivated, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In an online interview with Mr. Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow, she admitted to copying the hard drives and software but insisted she had simply backed them up because of some perceived but unspecified threat to the data. She also cited unfounded conspiracy theories about Dominion equipment.
“I was concerned that vital statistics and information was being deleted from the system or could be deleted from the system, and I wanted to preserve that,” she said. But she flatly denied leaking the passwords or software. “I did not post, did not authorize anyone to post, any election data or software or passwords online,” she said. Even so, the secretary of state’s office said that Colorado counties had never been advised to make copies of their election machines’ hard drives.“It is a serious security breach,” Ms. Griswold said in an interview. “This is election officials, trusted to safeguard democracy, turning into an internal security breach.”The local district attorney has opened a separate inquiry into the episode and is being assisted by the F.B.I. and the Colorado attorney general’s office. Ms. Griswold, a Democrat, said she had also alerted the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
But Ms. Griswold said she worried that with so many Republican leaders “leaning into the big lie,” the risks of what she called an “insider security issue” were growing.“I think it’s incredibly time-sensitive that elections are set up to guard both from external and internal threats,” she said.