This year, American voters are more concerned with election security than ever before. Public confidence in an election process is integral to democracy, but what happened in 2016 left many questioning the safety of their most basic rights.
Could looming cyber threats, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, affect the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election? Here's how election officials and volunteers across the country are working around the clock to ensure a free, fair, and safe Election Day.
Tech Helps Prevent Threats to Election Security
At election offices, voter registration is the backbone of operations. If the databases which maintain citizens' voter status records fall under attack, the consequences could be catastrophic. For this reason, VoteShield, a platform designed to protect the integrity of U.S. elections, has become a vital resource for election security.
The tool is used by election administrators to track changes within voter databases and protect them from any sort of tampering, as well as human error. Using machine learning and data visualizations, VoteShield reports trends, such as people moving or changing their political party affiliation, and flags troublesome anomalies for election administration.
"(VoteShield) can re-ensure the election administrators and the voters that the integrity of the system is intact."
The tool is currently protecting some, but not all, states against coordinated hacks and foreign interference. In 2018, Iowa became the first U.S. state to adopt the VoteShield platform. As of today, 19 other states are now protected by VoteShield.
Paul Pate, Iowa's Secretary of State, explains, "VoteShield is a real win for everybody and can re-ensure the election administrators and the voters that the integrity of the system is intact."
Along with public entities like VoteShield, the federal government is sending out additional election security resources to state and local officials. In March of 2020, the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity agency, in partnership with the Center for Internet Security, initiated a $2.2 million pilot program to provide election offices with new software that helps detect suspicious activity and voter fraud.
The software is being placed on devices used for voter registration and reporting vote totals. Thus far, 30 state election offices have begun utilizing these tools and there are plans to make the tools available to at least nine other states by November.
Protecting Voters During a Pandemic
Along with the looming threat of foreign and domestic election interference lies the ever-present issue of COVID-19 and the role it might play in citizens' equitable ability to vote. Election officials are having to deal with an influx of absentee ballots this year, as well as a decrease in volunteers and poll workers, due to the pandemic.
On top of that, many election offices are strapped for funding, with only a few full-time staff members. Poll workers stand to be exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of voters, leaving elderly volunteers especially susceptible to the virus.
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Tiana Epps-Johnson, co-founder of the Center for Tech and Civic Life, explains, "Local election officials have the most direct effect on our voting experience, but they are underserved." The CTCL serves election offices for over half of the U.S. population by sharing tools, training, and professional development resources with election departments.
According to Epps-Johnson, when COVID-19 hit, the CTCL moved quickly to disseminate free online information and resources to election offices on how to safely administer elections during the pandemic.
As Election Day draws near, the work of agencies like the CTCL are preparing us for unprecedented circumstances. Precautions being taken at polling stations across the country include social distancing, provision of PPE and sanitizing products, single-use supplies, and barriers between workers and voters. Offices are also actively recruiting poll workers who are less vulnerable to the virus.
However, a number of states are still short thousands of poll workers, which could lead to a reduction in the number of polling stations – and risk creating longer lines with increased exposure to COVID-19 at existing stations.
In their efforts to account for this, some states are getting creative and implementing unorthodox measures in their recruiting processes. Kentucky state officials were able to convince the state's Guild of Brewers to advertise polling station jobs on beer cans. Ohio is offering its attorneys continuing education credits to volunteer for open positions.
Celebrities and athletes are also getting involved in the process. Lebron James, in collaboration with other athletes, state election officials, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is working to recruit young activists to work at polling stations.
Kentucky is advertising polling station jobs on beer cans, and Ohio is offering its attorneys continuing education credits to volunteer.
2020 has been a year unlike any other. With what is sure to be an especially contentious election in November, it is imperative that Americans feel safe placing their votes and confident in the entire voting process.
To bolster election security, government agencies and organizations like VoteShield are working tirelessly. And although COVID-19 is adding unprecedented challenges to the mix, election officials and volunteers are adapting their processes in order to best protect voters.
While threats both physical and digital loom over this year's Election Day, there are many at work across the country fighting to ensure our right to access the ballot box. Whatever the outcome, the unsung work of these individuals will serve as a monument for what communities can accomplish when they come together to protect democracy.