By Christopher Johnson, ISACA Detroit Chapter Member and Election Volunteer
There’s a saying from former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill: All elections are local.
Elections in the United States are a mixed bag – intentionally. There is no one type of ballot or machine to process the ballot. Each of the more than 3,000 US counties is responsible for administering the election, from local all the way up to federal. The county in the Detroit area where I served as a poll worker for the last five years (operating the Electronic Poll Book) does a great job. Routinely the longest wait in line for in-person voting is 20 minutes in my county.
The good news is voter fraud is incredibly low, despite claims to the contrary. Additionally, mail-in voting fraud is almost nonexistent, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the independent regulatory agency charged with administering and enforcing federal campaign finance law.
If fraud is low, what are the deeper concerns?
The worst problem in America is our lack of consensus on what truth is. Misinformation is running rampant, and was designated as the top threat to election security in a recent survey from global nonpartisan technology association ISACA. Social media exacerbates our differences; too often it makes us hate each other and delve deeper into our biases/illusions. A post gets shared and shared again before it is proven false. If a false post is taken down, it becomes a game of “whack-a-mole” – it keeps popping up. People need to be vigilant in seeking out valid information. Check your sources and check them against each other. Pundits replaced journalists for many individuals. Pundits will give their opinion about the news; journalists will report the news. By the same token, journalists should be transparent about their biases. For example, a Black reporter can accurately give the facts of a confederate flag story, while acknowledging that he or she had ancestors who were enslaved.
What about fake news? It is easy to pull clips from a news conference or speech and create an entirely different narrative. Look for the original source material to understand the context of what was said by all parties involved. To combat misinformation, “trust but verify” … check multiple reputable sources before you click “share.”
What is the result of misinformation? It plants seeds of doubt about the integrity of the results and acts as a form of voter suppression.
Hacking or tampering with voting results
According to FiveThirtyEight, “Before the 2016 election, the online systems of 21 states were “scanned” by Russian cyber actors. Scanning doesn’t mean that they were penetrated by hackers — it’s more akin to someone driving by a house to see if anyone’s at home before robbing it.” As a result, state election systems were declared to be critical infrastructure.
This allows state election boards to qualify for security assistance from the federal government, the type of security measures employed to protect our nuclear facilities and electricity grid. Although security is a concern for all involved, it is not a smooth or easy process. States’ rights versus federal responsibility. Elections are decentralized on purpose.
What about absentee/mail-in voting? It is one of the safest methods of voting. It follows the same stringent guidelines of Election Day voting. Ballots can only go to registered voters. Returned ballots are checked against the registration rolls. Check with your state/county to find out the rules. Check the timetable for voting by mail. Allow plenty of time for your ballot to be processed.
Currently, because there are no federal guidelines about who can vote by mail or how, each jurisdiction sets up their own rules. Think about your taxes. As long as they are postmarked by the due date, they are not late. Keeping with that theme, they are processed as they are received. Neither of those things are necessarily true about mail-in (or absentee) voting. There is a high degree of security involved with processing the ballots. Many places begin processing the ballots after polls close.
As for me, most years I voted in person. After becoming a parent, I brought my children along to appreciate the process. Once I began working in the precincts, I voted by mail. It was the only way to ensure that I could vote because I may not be working in the precinct where I vote.
Regarding the training of poll workers … again, it is local. And it is individual. I’ve received outstanding training from my county clerk. That includes a mandatory in-person session for those operating the Electronic Poll Book. Additionally, precinct chairs and vice-chairs are required to complete this training. This ensures that the EPB is always staffed by a trained person, which is key in ensuring all ballots are accounted for (provided is equal to used plus unused plus spoiled). I’ve heard other clerks were not as skilled in training. There is a shortage of election workers for this election. This is due in part to the fact that most elections workers are older and, in the face of a global pandemic, do not wish to participate in a 14-hour (at least, in my county) workday.
One change that should be implemented is to set up standards about the processing of mail-in ballots. Some places begin processing the ballots as they arrive; others start counting ballots only after the polls close on Election Day. If mail-in votes double for a state and that state does not begin to process ballots until polls close on Election Day, more time is required to process and count all the ballots, likely leading to delayed results.
One thing we can all do is demonstrate patience. If the lines are expected to be long, such as for November’s presidential election, vote early or by mail if possible. And for this year in particular, exercise patience with regards to the results.
The big keys to remember: voter fraud is almost non-existent; fight misinformation by using sites such as snopes.com and FactCheck.org; and if you plan to vote by mail, verify your status and mail early.