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Will Officials Heed the Election Security Lessons of 2020?

On Monday, a panel of cybersecurity experts discussed whether the lessons of election administration from 2020 would "stick" or whether partisan woes would see a backlash against effective methods.

a sign that reads "Election 2020" on the side of a modern building
Shutterstock/Demiurge Designs
The results of the 2020 presidential race may be in, but the work to better secure U.S. elections is far from over.

This week, cybersecurity experts met to discuss what went right — and what could've gone better — at "Election Security: Lessons Learned from 2020," a panel held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. 

Despite unique challenges, 2020 was widely considered to be the "most secure election in American history." Even with COVID-19 bearing down on communities across the country and poll workers stretched thin, the U.S. managed to approach this year's election with better resources and strategies than ever before. 

This was, in no small part, due to an increased focus on the need for security after the Russian intrusion scandals of 2016. A big increase in multi-sector collaboration between state and local governments, federal agencies like CISA and the FBI, and partnerships in the private sector certainly helped keep things running smoothly and free of foreign interference, panelists agreed. 

Yet there were other, more obvious reasons why this year saw relatively smooth administration and a historic voter turnout — despite all odds to the contrary.

Panelists said that the unique circumstances presented by this year's election helped to spur adoption of certain voting methods and procedures that could help increase voter participation in the future.  

"Our election officials at the state and local level did an amazing job of providing additional options for voters to vote, and in essence made it easier to vote," said Liz Howard, an analyst with the Brennan Center for Justice. "So I think one of the big lessons is that if you make it easier to vote, it's going to affect turnout." 

Indeed, one of the biggest cybersecurity investments election officials made this year was one of the most analog solutions: expansion of vote-by-mail services. For years, election security experts have lobbied for this to occur. Research has shown that it is one of the most secure forms of election administration (when compared to more "hackable," IT-based solutions like paperless voting machines or even hybrid machines with auditable paper trails) and that it would increase voter turnout exponentially — a theory that was borne out by this year's vote count.  

Juan Gilbert, Banks Family Preeminence Endowed professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida, said he had some initial concerns about vote-by-mail going into the election, but that those concerns were quickly diffused by the smoothness of the process.

That smooth process was ensured by a multitude of entities working in concert to promote effective use, said Charles Stewart, MIT Kenan Sahin Distinguished professor of political science. Public relations, via an extensive, coordinated media campaign encouraging people to vote, was just as important as the vote-by-mail programs themselves, according to Stewart. 

"There was an amazing degree of public education in this election," he said. "It started in the campaigns, it went down to the election officials, to the traditional media, and to social media, all working together to remind voters to sign the damn thing. To ask for the ballot early and get it back early."

The question now is whether officials can effectively build on the lessons learned from 2020, or if these newfound methods will become politicized along partisan lines. Panelists expressed fear that, with vote-by-mail having become the target of no small amount of misinformation, a political and legal backlash may take place. 

"There is incredible polarization around mail balloting right now that did not exist to the same extent before this election," said Nate Persily, James B. McClatchy professor of law at Stanford University. "A lot of that is because Democrats are now so much more in favor of it than Republicans. Because of the way that the post-election period has shaken out, we are now in a situation where the very idea of mail balloting is triggering a partisan response that is very concerning."

Persily said he wondered how much vote-by-mail adoption "would stick" if eastern and southern states would become more like western states (California, Oregon and Colorado) where vote-by-mail is routine, or if a predictable backlash would ensue.  

"How we are going to see that lesson applied across the country is going to vary based on a couple of different factors," agreed Howard. "I think you're going to see some state legislatures that expand and work to make voting easier and I think you're going to see some that work to make it more difficult [to vote], specifically to vote by mail."   

So what can officials do about the crisis of voter confidence in the integrity of the vote?

Panelists tried to tackle this tricky subject — seeing as a cadre of GOP leaders are currently indulging conspiracy theories about the vote being stolen, inspiring public discontent. Not too long ago, Democrats made similar allegations that the 2016 election had been "stolen" and democracy tarnished by a Russian conspiracy with the Trump campaign (an extensive federal investigation found no convincing evidence that this was true). With each side so convinced that the other side is cheating, panelists wondered: How can confidence in the American political system be restored? 

"I think this issue of voter confidence in election administration is very fraught and we have to think very hard about it," said Stewart. "How do we instill in the public confidence in the [election] outcomes? First of all, we need the losers to admit they lost and to be gracious in losing."

Here, local election officials actually have a big role to play, as they are some of the most trusted figures for communities, Stewart said. By reifying the validity of national results, local officials can help keep voter confidence in the political system intact. Nevertheless, the issue of trust continues to be a tricky situation and there are a lot of different factors to consider. 

"I'm not sure we have a great sense about it yet," he said.

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.