WINDSOR, CT (November 2, 2020) – The 2020 election, like so many other things in our lives, presents unprecedented new challenges in the age of COVID-19. Massive increases in the numbers of mail-in and absentee ballots, as well as record turnout numbers throughout the country, are putting massive pressure on our elections systems and the people who administer them. On top of that, one has to layer on the prominence of the presidential election, cybersecurity threats, and a widespread lack of voter confidence.
Certainly, Election Day 2020 will be remembered as one of the most notable and unusual in our nation’s history. But it’s the days that immediately follow November 3rd that will be crucial for elections officials everywhere.
Elections have been evolving the last two decades but the pandemic’s put that evolution into warp speed
Elections as we know them in the U.S. have been held in largely the same manner since our nation’s founding. Voters showed up to assigned polling places on the designated day and cast their ballots. Traditionally, absentee ballots provided additional means of voting for those serving in the military or unable to make it to their polling places on election day.
Over the last 20 years, new technologies have revolutionized and improved the tools available to elections officials to ensure more efficient and secure elections. While these new technologies have been welcome and beneficial, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented pressures on our election systems and officials. This means an accelerated need to adapt to properly administer record-breaking early-voting, mail-in ballots, and an expected voter turnout.
And while it’s a huge and often daunting curve, changes can be quickly implemented through the right technology to ensure voters can safely vote from the safety and security of their homes. I’ve seen this first-hand, working with Secretaries of State’s Offices to develop systems that allow voters to register to vote and apply for absentee ballots online, as well as track the status of their ballots, thereby improving voter confidence along with voter safety during the pandemic.
Why the Days After Will be as Important as Election Day
Once the dust settles after the election, the important work will continue. The trend of bringing more technology into the voting process will continue due to the pandemic and the changes it necessitated. Voting by mail will prove to be far more than a “one hit wonder”- it’s here to stay.
As legislatures around the country go into session in January, we will most likely see bills introduced to expand mail-in voting. Many states will likely make expanded mail-in voting a permanent feature even if it was not historically a part of their processes. Increasing numbers of lawmakers and citizens alike will realize the “new normal” of 2020 may be a longer-lasting phenomenon than anyone ever thought possible. Certainly, when the pandemic started in March, few, if any of us, envisioned it impacting the General Election to the degree it has.
Thus, the question will not be “if something like this ever happens again” but “when something like this happens again.” To deal with this new reality, we will see mail-in ballots increasingly becoming a permanent fixture as the new normal. Given the record turnout this year, long lines are a fact of life at in-person polling places, often making social distancing difficult and increasing risks to vulnerable groups – groups that no one wants to see disenfranchised because of a public health crisis.
Hard Lessons Learned in the Past Could Make for a Smarter Future
After the 2000 Presidential Election, when almost two million ballots were disqualified because they registered multiple votes or none when run through vote-counting machines, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002. It mandated certain changes for states to prevent a recurrence of this type of event.
Currently, every state has its own vote-by-mail laws. In some states, officials can begin processing the ballots as they come in—opening envelopes, verifying signatures, removing secrecy sleeves and counting. This spreads the workload out over a longer period of time. But in still other states, officials can’t begin this work until actual election day. And given the deluge of mail-in votes this year, this could mean that in some states, it could take days before the winner is declared.
To avoid these sorts of problems election after election, legislation on a national scale, like that undertaken after the 2000 presidential election, may be in order to set uniform standards going forward. It was then, that according to a study by MIT, the term “voter confidence” came into the lexicon. Certainly, in every election going forward, voter confidence is something that should be considered as well as the urgency to deploy innovative election technology. They go hand-in-hand.
Making Sure Election Night Doesn’t Become Election Month
It is a given that there will be more legislation expanding mail-in voting. But that presents a new set of difficulties that must be overcome. Currently, every ballot has an outer envelope. On the back is info from the voter. In the inner envelope, for privacy’s sake, is the vote itself.
Currently, unpacking all of this is a manual process, taking a great deal of time and effort to open, properly witness and count. But as we’ve seen before, even long, drawn-out processes like these often offer opportunities for automation through technology. It’s not only a challenge I believe we can solve, we simply must, for the sake of our democracy. Still, there will be much work to be done.
According to a recent article in USA Today, more than 4 in 10 (46%) of Americans say they are not too confident or not at all confident that this general election will be conducted fairly and accurately. Additionally, a survey from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project indicates that concern over the election is similar among members of both parties. These surveys come amid growing concerns about the ability to handle an expected surge of mail-in ballots. Long delays in counting ballots would worsen voter confidence, and ultimately, participation.
After Election 2020: Take a Deep Breath and Get Ready for More Work
Hopefully, after November 3rd, there will be some time to catch our breath and reflect. Of course, this is only if there are not long, drawn-out counts or recounts and litigation that could delay the final results for days or weeks. Regardless of how it all plays out, it will be critical that we make use of the experience of Election 2020 to build better processes for the future.
Like many others across the country, I’m working as a local election official and hope to see firsthand what works and doesn’t work and apply that knowledge. In this capacity, I’ve already seen how our polling site(s) have had to be moved from the town hall to a much larger venue to accommodate social distancing. Officials and volunteers in my local precincts have also had to think through everything from disposable pens to plexiglass barriers to distancing in line because of public health protocols.
Professionally, in my role with Civix, I’m proud that our company belongs to the Election Infrastructure Subsector Coordinating Council (EI SCC). The group serves as an invaluable resource for sharing best practices. Its mission is “to advance the physical security, cyber security and emergency preparedness of the nation’s election infrastructure, in accordance with existing U.S. law.” This is accomplished through voluntary action of the infrastructure owners and operators represented in the council. Through EI SCC, as we move forward, we have the organization in place to make the changes needed, as well as develop and implement the critical new technologies that will be needed to accommodate mail-in voting, while ensuring the integrity of the voting system and earning voter trust. The EI SCC serves an important and is a model for coordination amongst stakeholders.
Technology Means More Voter Participation – and That’s a Good Thing
Since 2016, much of the discourse in our industry has been dominated by talk of hacks and cybersecurity. The fact is, it has not been proven that any votes were changed in the 2016 election via hacking. Could it happen? Certainly, and it should be the top concern for every Secretary of State and every official overseeing voting processes and equipment. Again, it is adopting new technologies moving forward that will increase our defenses against potential hacking or manipulation of the voting system.
Moreover, it is technology that will help us achieve the equally noble goal of ensuring wider, safer access to voting. Admittedly, as someone who works for a technology leader in this area, I have a bias. Still, my loyalties and belief in the work we do in providing technology solutions to those in charge of our voting system is dwarfed only by my love for our country and a commitment to free and fair elections. And a very critical and meaningful expression of that love and commitment is my earnest desire to ensure our voting and election systems are the best they can possibly be. The technologies exist and are ripe for further development. We as an industry must lead Americans to trusting and embracing them.
Expanded, secure voting is not just good for those in charge of the voting infrastructure, it’s good for those in charge of the country – namely, everyone who casts a ballot.
Tom Ferguson is the Elections and Ethics Product Manager for Civix Government. He is also the current Deputy Registrar of Voters for the Town of Manchester, CT and was previously the Director of Elections for the Office of the Secretary of the State of Connecticut for 10 years. Accomplishments include:
- Elections Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Council ’18 – present
- National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), Member ’94-2003, Executive Board ’95-2003, Association President ’99-2000
- State of Connecticut Judicial Review Council ‘06-2014
- Eighth Utilities District of Manchester, Connecticut, President ’90-2004
- Board of Directors (Legislative Body), Town of Manchester, Connecticut ’82-1986
- Board of Selectmen, Town of Manchester, Connecticut ’80-1982
- International Election Outreach and Assistance, Election Observation Missions ’95-2003