As President Biden prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address this week, on the eve of his 100th day in office, state and federal lawmakers remain engaged in contentious debate over the security and integrity of the 2020 General Election.
The 2020 election saw historic turnout, with a record of more than 157 million Americans casting a vote. Numerous top U.S. elections officials, national organizations, nonprofits and vendors have consistently concluded that the election was the "most secure in the nation's history."
Still, the presidential election has spawned hundreds of new election security bills, many of which include restrictive provisions related to remote voting, early voting and infrastructure measures such as drop-off boxes. The bills' sponsors say these provisions will prevent voter fraud, while critics claim that they will reduce voting accessibility.
On April 26, Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie moderated a virtual panel discussion—hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine—on the key lessons learned from the 2020 election and the current conversation around elections security. During the event, which served as a follow-up to a similar discussion McRobbie hosted last December, four distinguished elections security experts shared their thoughts and insights on why many Americans continue to distrust the election process despite there being no evidence of widespread voter fraud; what is driving distrust and disinformation around election security; what proposed elections security legislation gets right and wrong; and what steps local and federal officials could take to increase trust in one of the most fundamental rights of our democracy.
Joining McRobbie in the discussion were Duncan Buell, NCR chair emeritus in computer science and engineering at the University of South Carolina; Bridgett King, associate professor and director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Auburn University; Amber McReynolds, CEO for the National Vote at Home Institute; and New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who jokingly compared preparing for a presidential election to getting ready to welcome the circus to town.
"We always knew going into 2020 that [the presidential election] would be an epic circus, and of course that was born out," Oliver said.
Oliver, who is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said that because elections are run so differently by local and state officials across the country, the process is often confusing and imperfect. All of the panelists agreed, emphasizing that this increases the urgency of the U.S. making decisions about how to govern the process, such as whether greater federal standards are needed to ensure more equitable elections, and what policies could help protect future elections in the face of unexpected events like the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, there will be a need for even greater communication, honesty and transparency about the voting process, given how much election law differs from state to state.
"What we saw this year is that [disinformation] flourished and inconsistent practices and procedures created an environment for that disinformation to flourish," said McReynolds, who leads a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making sure every American can vote in secure, safe, accessible and equitable elections by expanding vote-at-home systems in all 50 states. "We need more national standards around voting process in every state."
McReynolds, who was recently nominated by President Biden to serve on the U.S. Postal Service’s governing board, blamed lingering concerns over the security and integrity of the recent presidential election on our nation's failure to have a genuine conversation about how to best govern our elections and how to design voting laws, policies and procedures with a "voter-first mentality."
"When you look at some of the other modern democracies around the world, they have tried to pull their elections into more of a professional role that is free from partisan politics," she said. "Campaigns can be partisan, but the prospect of delivering and servicing elections should not be."
Each of the panelists expressed a desire to build off some of the positive developments of the past November election, including record numbers of Americans who voted early (more than 101 million) and who voted by mail (the percentage of voters casting ballots by mail more than doubled from 2016, to 46 percent.) Additionally, they praised the continuing retirement across the nation of paperless voting systems, which was a key recommendation of NASEM's nonpartisan Committee on the Future of Voting, co-chaired by McRobbie and Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, which examined voting challenges arising out of the 2016 presidential election.
In 2018, the committee, which included computer science and cybersecurity experts, legal and elections scholars, social scientists and election officials, released a detailed report recommending that all local, state and federal U.S. elections be conducted using human-readable and verifiable paper ballots. Furthermore, the committee concluded that states should not use Internet voting and should not use it until it can be done in a way that is totally secure and verifiable.
"We have to get rid of the paperless machines," said Buell, whose recent work focuses on electronic voting systems and who has been part of a team that is auditing election data in South Carolina. "Paper is the only thing you are able to audit."
Toward the end of the discussion, McRobbie paid tribute to the "real heroes of last election," including the tens of thousands of election officials who did their jobs under "intense pressure," but who cannot be expected to perform so capably in the future without increased support.
"The whole process of being an elections official is getting more complicated," McRobbie added. "More demands are being put on people and the pressure is getting stronger, and this raises the whole question of whether we need more professionalization and more training. The 2020 election was hailed as the most secure election in American history, but that does not mean that elections officials have all the resources they need to sustain such an effort."
Watch McRobbie speak about the challenges facing the nation's election system at the October 2020 Themester webinar, "Securing the Vote," sponsored by the IU Ostrom Workshop’s Program on Cybersecurity and Internet Governance.