We haven't yet seen evidence that would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election — even with the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic, the threat of foreign interference, civil unrest and greater turnout than any time since 1900. That counts as a resounding success.
Once the final tallies are certified, we need to thank the election administrators and poll workers whose heroic efforts preserved American democracy. After that, we need to assess what worked best and what needs to improve, so we can identify achievable steps to make future elections even more secure.
Based on what we know so far, here are five things that should be on the U.S. elections to-do list:
First, counties in eight states are still using paperless voting equipment exclusively. We need them to transition to paper-based systems, providing financial resources if necessary. Voting equipment without an auditable paper trail can produce results that are inconsistent with voter's choices, either because of hackers or a technical failure. In 2020, more than 90 percent of votes were cast on paper-based voting equipment, including all of the states President Trump is contesting or that haven't been called. That's an improvement over the 2016 election, when 80 percent of votes had a paper record. The goal for the 2024 election should be 100 percent.
Second, all states using voting equipment with an auditable paper trail should conduct robust audits before election results are certified. This will ensure all ballots are counted correctly. It will also allow discrepancies to be remedied and reflected in the final results. If any issue threw off the count, election officials would be even more likely to spot it and re-create an accurate count with paper records.
Third, any jurisdictions without backup manual processes for each of their election technologies must obtain them. No technology is infallible. Each piece — including electronic poll books, electronic voting systems, and online voter registration websites — has vulnerabilities that can be exploited or could experience technical failures. As we saw with the 2020 presidential election, safeguards such as backup paper poll books ensure election infrastructure failures only slow down voting, rather than stop it.
Fourth, bolster the mail-in balloting process. Due to the pandemic, far more voters requested absentee ballots this year. Preliminary evidence suggests that relatively few of these ballots have been rejected. Unfortunately, U.S. Postal Service data also shows that at least 150,000 ballots arrived the day after the election, leaving many votes out of some states' counts. To prevent this from happening again, there should be an investigation of USPS processing of election mail. It should determine how many ballots were late to election offices through no fault of the voter.
Fifth, states should also adjust deadlines to reflect the realities of mail balloting and provide even more options for returning ballots, including more ballot drop boxes and in-person drop-off locations. These measures would not only improve the administration of mail-in voting, they would counter the misinformation and disinformation surrounding mail-in ballots we've seen throughout the 2020 cycle.
David Levine is an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former election official in Ada County, Idaho. Read more from The Fulcrum's Election Dissection blog. A version of this essay ran previously on the Election Law Blog.
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Hold the champagne: The 2020 Election Season isn't over just yet. Neither of Georgia's Senate races resulted in a victor on Election Day, sending both contests to January runoffs that will likely determine control of the U.S. Senate. And while many folks are understandably focused on the political repercussions of these races, I'm pulling for a different candidate: democracy.
While Georgia will likely conduct a risk-limiting audit and recount of the presidential election later this month, the state appears to have done a good job administering the 2020 presidential election. As a former election administrator and expert on the integrity of elections, my assessment is there is no reason to question the integrity of the election outcome. If any concrete evidence suggesting that wrongful disenfranchisement has or will affect the accuracy of the outcome, that assessment could change. Right now, there isn't.
Regardless, these are three steps Georgia officials could take now to ensure the integrity of the state's runoff elections in January:
State officials, candidates and prominent politicians should use responsible rhetoric.
No one should allege that either of January's races are "stolen" unless there's evidence to back it up. President Trump and some of his allies have used such language repeatedly during the presidential election. Democrats such as Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio used similar language following Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's 2018 victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. Such language feeds a growing cycle of mistrust that delegitimizes the election process. Doubts can be exploited by foreign adversaries, such as Russia, to undermine confidence and legitimacy in our democracy.
A democracy depends on losers accepting election results, even if the election is not mistake-free. That doesn't mean the public should refrain from pointing out voting problems. To the contrary, identifying and addressing legitimate issues often helps improve the administration of current and future elections. They just aren't, by themselves, enough to overturn the results of an election.
Election administrators must continue to proactively share accurate information about the runoff elections to counter mis- and disinformation.
Trusted sources of information, such as state and local election officials, prepared our country for how the presidential election would unfold. With less lead time, Georgia election officials must continue this trend for the runoffs. Falsely accusing another political party of hacking into the state election system a few days before Election Day, like Kemp did when he was secretary of state in 2018, is unhelpful and counterproductive. Alleging double voting without evidence, as current Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger did in September, could sow doubt ahead of the runoff elections.
Instead, election officials need to provide accurate information on where, when and how to vote for the runoff elections to ensure voter confidence, counter any false information, and make it easier to remedy any issues that could arise. They need to conduct robust outreach to remind Georgia voters that Nov. 18 is when absentee ballots will begin going out, Dec. 7 is the deadline to register to vote, and Dec. 14 marks the beginning of early in-person voting. And voters who will be 18 by Jan. 5 should be reminded they're now eligible to register and cast ballots.
Election officials should take steps to ensure that the runoff elections are well administered.
While the presidential election went well, Georgia's June primary election had problems. On Oct. 30, the Georgia State Board of Elections approved a negotiated consent order with Fulton County (which accounts for approximately 10 percent of Georgia's population) after the county had a very difficult primary — some polling places opened late and some didn't have proper equipment. As a result, Fulton County is now required to keep a force of 2,200 properly trained poll workers; provide at least 24 early voting locations; have a technical support staff member at every voting site; and have its elections independently monitored.
With a quick turnaround for the January vote and continuing concerns about Covid-19, local officials will be challenged. They need to prepare for January at the same time they're wrapping up the presidential vote tally. They need sufficient funds to secure voting locations and poll workers, maintain and test their voting equipment, order ballots, and prepare backup plans in case any part of the election process experiences problems.
If Georgia can do each of these three things, it will go a long way towards administering accessible, legitimate and secure elections.
- Georgia latest focus of fight over delayed ballots - The Fulcrum ›
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- Long lines in Georgia may signal voter suppression - The Fulcrum ›
- Late rush to register young Georgians for Senate runoffs - The Fulcrum ›
- Major Georgia county closes half of early balloting centers - The Fulcrum ›
- Georgia smashes record for most expensive Senate election - The Fulcrum ›
- Georgia showcases problems with winner-take-all elections - The Fulcrum ›
- Few problems as Georgians cast final votes of 2020 election - The Fulcrum ›
- Georgia's elections held up despite unprecedented challenges - The Fulcrum ›
- Senate Control Likely Decided By Fate Of 2 Georgia Runoff Races ›
- Georgia Runoff: Perdue-Ossoff Senate Race Heads To Runoff : NPR ›
- 2020 Senate Election Forecast | FiveThirtyEight ›
- News Conference on Georgia Vote Count | C-SPAN.org ›
- Georgia's legacy of voter suppression is driving historic Black turnout ›
There's been growing concern about voter intimidation in the presidential election. Last month, Philadelphia officials turned away a group of Trump campaign poll watchers who were breaking Pennsylvania law. In Virginia, supporters of the president temporarily blocked an early voting site, forcing officials to escort voters to cast ballots. And in Minnesota, a private security company recruited former soldiers to guard polling sites, alarming election officials.
Voters often speak of "running the gauntlet" of partisan supporters to get to the polls. No one knows for sure how the rest of the election will play out, or how this "enthusiasm" will be interpreted by voters. But voters should know that officials are aware of these threats and have been planning for them.
We are both former local election officials who have observed voter intimidation in previous cycles. We now study elections, both within and outside of the U.S., and regularly interact with current election officials. We want to share what we know officials are doing to make voting secure.
Training poll workers
Across the country, election officials are recruiting and training workers to staff polling places. While much of their training is properly focused on how to ensure voters can successfully cast ballots amid the pandemic, poll workers also are taught how to handle a serious conflict at the polling place. Poll workers are trained on de-escalating such situations, when to reach out to election officials for help, and when, if necessary, to contact law enforcement.
Laws protect voters
All states have laws regarding who is authorized to be in the polling place. In many states, that means voters (and someone to assist the voter if necessary), poll workers and sanctioned observers. Local jurisdictions have rules about where the public can be and what's allowed. Voter intimidation is against the law in every state.
Officials are also coordinating to ensure law enforcement can respond quickly to any serious disturbances. In some cases, law enforcement is present with election officials at Election Day command centers. They monitor voting and help troubleshoot issues as needed. In other cases, law enforcement may accompany "rovers," election workers who check on polling places throughout the day.
Finally, election officials are reviewing security plans for each voting location. These plans include ensuring multiple exits and bolstering safety. Security shortcomings due to polling place structures are being mitigated. Electioneering areas are being clearly established.
What voters can do
While the above measures are helpful, there are things the broader public can do too. One, if you see something, say something. Report suspicious activity to your local officials or police when appropriate. There's a reason local election officials are trusted by broad swaths of the public. Regardless of the outcome, most are hellbent on ensuring the election process is fair.
Next, vote early if you can. Despite the pandemic, large numbers of voters will vote in-person on Election Day. While election officials will do their best to help keep the peace, they don't have infinite resources. Fewer voters to process on Nov. 3 means they'll be able to respond more quickly to any incidents that do occur.
Finally, make sure you know the rules. Each state has guidelines on the voting process, including how it can be observed. From our experience, many conflicts arise because voters don't know the rules. There are plenty of legal ways to both vote and express support for candidates. If you're not sure what those ways are, reach out to trusted sources of information, such as your local election officials, to find out.
David Levine is an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former election official in Ada County, Idaho. Tammy Patrick is a senior advisor for elections at Democracy Fund and a former election official in Maricopa County, Ariz. Read more from The Fulcrum's Election Dissection blog or see our full list of contributors.
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