Election security at higher risk in high-turnout election

Election support specialists checking equipment in Miami-Dade County before the 2018 midterm elections. How can voters be sure their votes will be secure in November?

High voter turnout is widely predicted in November, which is always good news for democracy. The bad news for democracy is that many voters are worried about election security and might not trust the eventual outcome of the presidential election. Concerns include voting machines that could be hacked, voter suppression, voter fraud, and widespread dissemination of misinformation.

The failure of technology in the Iowa caucuses only adds to that concern. The delay in reporting vote totals because of a new and untested smartphone app was frustrating, especially as cable news channels flooded the caucuses with reporters while talking heads tried to fill hours with new ways of asking, “What’s going on?” Many are left asking whether they should trust the results at all, and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez is calling for drastic action.

Iowa Democratic officials slogged their way through counting paper preference cards filled in by caucus goers. But Democratic officials blamed Republican trolls for tying up phone hotlines that were supposed to be used to report vote totals, slowing the process even more. Photos of caucus paperwork featuring the hotline number were posted online, allowing any GOP troublemaker to call. Here’s how a story on Talking Points Memo summed up the situation: “A perfect storm of incompetence, over-reliance on technology, and new reporting requirements have delayed caucus results for days.” Iowa Democratic Party officials now say they will launch an independent forensic review of the entire process.

As many polls about impeachment show, a majority of voters believe that Donald Trump is encouraging election interference. In addition, a plurality of voters are worried about election security. A recent NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist Poll showed that 41% of voters have a high level of concern that voting in 2020 will not be safe and secure, a figure that has gone up 3 percentage points since September 2018.

Poll respondents answered along party lines: 66% of Democrats say the U.S. is not very prepared or not prepared at all on election security, while only 11% of Republicans had such concerns. Responses from independents were evenly split and matched the overall responses, with 41% landing on either side of the voting security question.

Here were poll respondents’ top voting security concerns:

  • 35% of voters fear misleading information.
  • 24% complain of voter fraud.
  • 16% list voter suppression.
  • 15% fear foreign interference.
  • 5% report a fear of possible problems at a polling place, such as long lines, broken voting machines, or an inability to take time off work to vote.

Perhaps voters should be more concerned about problems at polling places:

  • Recent reports show how easy it is to hack into voting systems, which might have occurred in Georgia in 2016 and 2018.
  • A report to the Senate Intelligence Committee states that election systems in all 50 states were targeted by Russia in 2016.
  • When election security experts assembled a group of 100 voting machines at a conference in August 2019, hackers were able to break into all of them.
  • California officials have not yet certified a new electronic voting system in Los Angeles County because of multiple potential vulnerabilities.

It’s not just voting machines, according to a Bloomberg News report on cybersecurity.

Election machines are just one way hackers could try to infiltrate an election to change the vote or undermine its credibility. They also could corrupt voter registration rolls or lock up the computers of voting officials with ransomware. Only in the case of voting machines, though, does the safest technology also happen to be simpler and cheaper.

Predictably, 47% of Republicans listed the favorite GOP bugaboo, voter fraud, as a top concern, even though it’s practically nonexistent. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School has put voter fraud incident rates at between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent of all votes cast. But facts don’t matter to GOP voters who believe Trump’s constant lies about “illegal voters” and “rigged elections.”

Voter fraud hysteria gives Republican-led states an excuse to pass stricter voting requirements: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, 35 of which are in force in 2020. Eighteen states ask for a photo ID, while 16 states ask for a non-photo ID.

When voter fraud does occur, it adds fuel to the GOP fire. A technical glitch recently discovered in Illinois meant that several hundred legal immigrants getting driver’s licenses were actually registered to vote at the same time. State election officials estimate that only 16 members of that group actually cast ballots in 2018, but the number obviously should have been zero. The state is working with local election authorities “to make sure anyone who was mistakenly registered is taken off the rolls,” says a story from Chicago’s WGN-TV. Not surprisingly, the state’s Republicans are up in arms.

A much bigger problem is voter suppression. In a different report, the Brennan Center found that states purged 16 million voters from voting rolls between 2014 and 2016 alone. Several Republican-led states, such as Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin (just to name a few) have purged or are in the process of purging voters, but even states led by Democrats, such as New York, have purged voters incorrectly, and California is deleting voters as a result of a settlement with the conservative group Judicial Watch. On the federal level, the House of Representatives passed a bill banning voter purging. It’s in the Democrats’ signature voting rights and election security bill that is now gathering dust on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk.

Voting security is only part of the story, though. Voters also are increasingly worried about the spread of disinformation. According to an NPR story about the poll, 59% of respondents said it was hard for them to tell the difference between facts and misleading information. A whopping 82% say it’s “likely or very likely” that they will read misleading information on a social media site such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. (If ever a poll result should be 100%, it’s that response.)

Trump’s reelection campaign already is spreading disinformation throughout social media, attacking Democrats, twisting people’s words using out-of-context clips and quotes, and just flat-out lying. It’s $1 billion operation is even being referred to as “the Death Star,” according to a story in The Atlantic.

Every presidential campaign sees its share of spin and misdirection, but this year’s contest promises to be different. In conversations with political strategists and other experts, a dystopian picture of the general election comes into view—one shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting. Both parties will have these tools at their disposal. But in the hands of a president who lies constantly, who traffics in conspiracy theories, and who readily manipulates the levers of government for his own gain, their potential to wreak havoc is enormous.

The Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives. These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. Whether or not it succeeds in reelecting the president, the wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.

Several questions must be answered in coming months as officials brace for a predicted avalanche of voters.

How will state and local officials handle a voting surge? Will they guarantee enough polling sites, enough ballots, enough voting machines, and enough election judges? How much will voter suppression tactics, such as voter ID laws, voter purges, and poll closures, especially in areas that skew Democratic, limit voter access, and thus affect outcomes? How will officials guarantee accuracy when votes are being counted on machines that are often bought over the objections of cybersecurity experts?

On the voting rights front, how much will efforts to open up voting, such as same-day registration, automatic voter registration, no-questions-asked absentee ballots, and early voting encourage more people to cast ballots? Right now, 18 states and the District of Columbia have automatic voter registration or are in the process of implementing it, most of them through the process of getting a driver’s license or interacting with another state agency. Laws allowing automatic registration have been in effect for only five years but led to a big jump in registered voters: New registrations rose by as high as 94 percent, according to yet another report from the Brennan Center.

Henry Olsen, a Washington Post conservative columnist, admits that voters are right to be worried.

Our state election systems are almost certainly not prepared for this. We already face complaints that there are too few polling stations, especially in inner-city areas, to accommodate the people who wanted to vote in past years. Imagine if those two-hour waits double to four-hour waits. Affected populations would surely cry foul, leading to even more charges of intentional voter suppression and election manipulation. …

Imagine what would happen if after an incredibly bitter campaign, millions of people faced insuperable burdens that lead to them either not voting or extending polling hours into the wee hours of the night to accommodate voter demand. Both parties would likely end up crying fraud, with the loser possibly even claiming the election was stolen.

No one wants to wake up Nov. 4 to election results they don’t trust. It’s up to all of us to ensure that access to ballots remains fair and that everyone who wants to cast a vote can do so in a timely manner, without hassle, and be assured that their votes were counted fairly.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 7, 2020.

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