The 2020 election will come near the conclusion of a year rocked by unprecedented protests, sudden natural disasters and stark political divisiveness — all of them taking place in the shadow of COVID-19 and its devastating effect on the world’s economy.
The importance of having a fair, free and accurate election that channels the passions raised by these events cannot be understated. Yet, as we learned in the 2016 general and 2018 mid-term elections, periods of uncertainty and crisis act as opportunities for adversaries, both foreign and domestic, to undermine our democratic traditions.
State, county and municipal governments tasked with the operations of elections need to minimize fraud, maximize voter engagement, and protect against internal and external interference – while factoring in how the challenge to voters’ health from COVID-19 might affect all those strategies.
To do this effectively, election authorities should concentrate on five key ways their actions can safeguard against all these threats and establish confidence in our democracy.
For Emily Oehler, a director at Grant Thornton, improving communications about voting means thinking like a voter and not like an administrator.
“I’ve read recently that an average American scrolls through a football field length of information every day,” Oehler said. With all that distraction, getting necessary information to people about important voting deadlines and locations must be more than just “putting it out there” and figuring people will see it and remember to vote.
Oehler’s advice is to keep the messaging simple and to make it actionable. Target voters in a timely way with short messages that always move them to take action. That way, malicious efforts to thwart elections, dampen registration or cause confusion about timing and poll placements can be dismissed by voters who already know the facts.
The methods of reaching and finding voters will vary across states, counties and even smaller jurisdictions for many reasons. Reaching out to voters with varying methods isn’t a matter so much of appealing to Democrats vs. Republicans or rural vs. urban voters, but to young vs. old voters. Older voters still trust and rely on paper communication methods, while tech-savvy younger voters will see information in different online sites.
Oehler said not to forget the power of word-of-mouth communications. Election communications staff can ensure that this type of information is spread by promoting such methods as a “check your neighbor” campaign or creating memorable marketing materials around voting that can be passed on by friends.
The right tone of elections communications content is important, too. “Content should be written like you’re explaining it to your neighbor, not your best friend and not your family,” Oehler said. If the tone is too “familiar,” the messages lose credibility, but if it’s too formal, it won’t engage a reader. And there is no need to do it alone. Communication staff should work with outside groups when feasible to promote registration drives and voting awareness. Election staff should be careful to “get the word out” in a general, neutral way rather than actively seeking out specific groups and running the risk of appearing politically biased.
Running an election takes money, and the need to enact COVID-19 health and safety measures will strain already limited resources. Election logistics and operations can be compromised due to the lack of timely funding, preventing elections officials from acquiring necessary supplies, paying personnel, and ensuring election infrastructure is fully capable.
One federal source of income for election operations is from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which has provided $425 million in 2020 to administer elections for federal offices, including enhancing technology and improving security. States applying for these funds have already used them for voting equipment upgrades and methods to assist the anticipated increase in mail-in ballots.
The recently enacted CARES Act contained a wealth of provisions aimed at curbing the economic effects of COVID-19 grants, and this included funding for voting administration. Common uses for CARES Acts funds include personal protective equipment and sanitization, mail-in voting, voter equipment and replacement upgrades, increased staffing, communications and polling site relocations. Often, outside advisors can help identify and secure grants for such needs, as well as monitor compliance and coordinate grant change requests and appeals.
Voter rolls, ballot counters, voting machines and records are all normally kept in electronic files, which makes them vulnerable to mistakes, misuse and even deliberate tampering and disruption. Dave Simprini, principal at Grant Thornton, puts the issue squarely:
“The challenge comes down to the fact that the people protecting the infrastructure have to be right 100% of the time, while adversaries just have to break it once,” Simprini said. What’s more, the days of lone-wolf hackers are gone – hacking into new technology is a team effort. If someone hacks through, say, 80% of a new system, Simprini said that information is disseminated on the dark web where others can figure out the remaining weaknesses.
Additionally, election systems can fail to operate properly, even without malicious interference, as the anticipated high volume of remote votes in some localities could overwhelm jurisdictions not previously accustomed to them. The presence of COVID-19 and the desire to social distance only exacerbates this phenomenon. Meanwhile, protecting and ensuring the proper functioning of this voting technology can often fall to limited government staff who are already tasked with other record-keeping duties and not enough time to do them.
Despite these challenges and threats, government bodies have many resources upon which to draw. The Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center (EI-ISAC), the Elections Assistance Commission and the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency are all funded to provide assistance. Voting is viewed as critical infrastructure and falls under the governance of the Office of Homeland Security. These bodies can help election employees focus on inventory systems and software, identifying vulnerabilities, minimizing unnecessary accesses or connections, and ensuring decisions on sensitive data and methods are made in a timely manner.
Also, one of the most effective ways to ensure election integrity is to not rely on only one method. Electronic voting could be hacked. Paper ballots can be lost, destroyed or compromised. But multi-factor authentication, such as scanning a paper ballot, so you have duplicate records of the same vote, is an effective way to mitigate vote hacking or loss. By auditing dual records of the same vote, errors can be found that could significantly impact a close election.
“What’s important is having the redundancy, and the ability to audit the results,” Simprini said.
The need to accommodate the expected impact of COVID on voting this fall makes certain that increasing the capacity to handle mail-in ballots and expanding remote voting will be a task for many, if not most, election boards. Though all states allow voters to vote by mail in certain circumstances, some require the voter to list an excuse before getting approved. Currently, 29 states allow you to apply for a mail-in ballot without needing to list an extenuating circumstance. Many states are now actively working to expand options for at-home voting in an attempt to limit foot traffic at polling sites.
Catherine Johnson, a manager at Grant Thornton, said that to organize the response to COVID-19 and the anticipated changes in voting habits, there has to be a balance between accommodating voters with different needs and a budget that may limit what you can do.
“I am a fan of being realistic, and then creating a strategy to reach the goals you are trying to achieve,” Johnson said. The three main factors to balance when organizing an election are cost, time, and quality (which includes the health and safety of those involved). “If you want to maintain all three in balance, you need to have a realistic plan.”
Besides the challenges of mail-in and remote voting, social distancing and sanitation must be maintained at polling sites, which will require additional resources and staff. Health and human safety have to be a priority for both voters and poll workers. The challenge arises in that more than 57% of polling place volunteers are people over the age of 601
, and that group of people is at a higher risk for developing more severe symptoms from COVID-19. Special efforts should be made this year to recruit volunteers from lower-risk groups, Johnson said.
Johnson said determining what resources an election governing body has is a first step. Some voting jurisdictions not accustomed to large volumes of remote voters may be overwhelmed. Finally, the anticipated influx of mail-in and remote ballots could result in some tight races taking some time to be decided, and voting officials should be prepared for this contingency.
“When we meet clients to talk about fraud risk, they are quick to look outside the organization,” said Taylor Larimore, a senior manager at Grant Thornton. But the focus, Larimore said, uncomfortable as it may be, needs to be turned inward as much as outward.
Larimore said organizations don’t want to think that their own employees are capable of fraud, and that’s understandable. Most people who are honest have trouble imagining their co-workers as not honest. But threats to the security of information in registration data and voter rolls can come from a variety of sources and election officials need to be aware of these.
Of course, outside fraudsters are a significant threat, not only to influence elections but in many cases to undermine the idea of democracy by committing actions aimed at making people less secure about election outcomes.
Combatting election fraud needs to take a variety of approaches. These range from implementing data matching techniques, identifying known fraud techniques, restricting access to information when feasible and looking for internal red flags -- such as employees who are very protective of specific duties within an office.
The most important step election officials can take is to act now, if they haven’t started, to prepare for the unprecedented challenges of the 2020 election. Often, this can be best accomplished with professional advisers, whose experience with other election governing bodies can be a valuable resource.
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