NASEM Voting Webinar: Will our votes be secure and counted in 2020?


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Thank you very much, Dr. McNutt. I am very pleased to join all of you for this clearly very timely discussion on the integrity and security of the upcoming presidential election.

At the outset of our committee’s 2018 report, we observed how, in 2016, malicious foreign actors worked to undermine the credibility of our election results and Americans’ confidence in our democratic institutions. And so, the latest warnings from the U.S. intelligence community that foreign countries are seeking to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election comes as no surprise to us or many other people.

Our nonpartisan committee of scientists, lawyers, and election officials laid out a plan to ensure a voting environment that is both safe for voters and protects the security and integrity of the voting process. Many of our recommendations to safeguard and improve our elections remain relevant as we consider new assessments of foreign interference this fall, as well as concerns about how to conduct safe and secure voting in a pandemic and increasingly louder claims that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud.

While the challenges and threats confronting our elections process are undoubtedly urgent, fortunately, there is still time—though not much—to do more to harden our election infrastructure and avoid further erosion of public trust in our system of representative democracy.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, voting by mail offers the safest way to participate in our elections, although it doesn’t come without risks, including the risk of “lost votes” when applications or ballots are not delivered on time, when a mistake made by the voter results in a rejected ballot, or when a tabulator fails to register the vote. But absentee voting has largely been proven to be effective in delivering registered votes. In the 2016 federal election, 99 percent of absentee ballots categorized as “returned and submitted for counting” were ultimately counted in the 2016 federal election. Evidence also suggests that the convenience and safety of voting by mail might also stimulate increased voter participation.

We can learn from states and local jurisdictions that have effectively implemented—and, in some cases, extended and expanded—vote-by-mail provisions. We can also build upon current regulations regarding absentee voting and declare that COVID-19 isolation measures are appropriate justification for issuing an absentee ballot to those affected. And for those who will vote in person, we should support social distancing at the polls by providing longer periods of early voting and extending voting hours.

We should also make every effort to conduct the upcoming federal election with human-marked and readable paper ballots. This was the central recommendation of our committee’s report, along with verifying voting results with risk-limiting audits, in which statistically significant random samples of paper ballots are examined to confirm to high levels of probability, the result of an election before its certification.

As it was when we issued our report, federal support is critical to whether our system of voting can evolve in order to ensure a safe election and thwart any external actors who wish to undermine our democracy. Fortunately, since our report was issued in 2018, the federal government, state governments, and the nation as a whole are more aware of the various threats to the integrity of our elections and of the need for the federal government to work closely with the states to safeguard election security.

Upgrades to our election systems were needed well before the newest intelligence warnings and the unprecedented turn of events caused by COVID-19—and they are more urgently needed now. We were encouraged that the federal stimulus bill that passed in March at the beginning of the pandemic included funds to help states address COVID-related challenges to voting and that many legislators continue to push for increased funds to safeguard our elections.

Still, it is unclear whether what has been already been allocated—and what has subsequently been proposed—will support all of the necessary adjustments to our voting process. Private philanthropy, including a $300 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month, has now totaled half a billion dollars, which is intended to help shore up our elections during the pandemic. These donations, though, reinforce the need to develop a sustainable model for state and federal budgetary support for ongoing election administration. The health of our election systems and our democracy cannot ultimately rely on private philanthropy.

To be sure, any adjustments we make to our voting process will require that state and local election officials work closely with public health officials so that changes to voting procedures are fact-based, well-documented, and transparent. Americans must clearly understand the purpose and need for any changes to our election systems and the seriousness of the threats to it. They must also know that their right to exercise their vote safely and securely—and to have their vote be accurately counted and tabulated—is paramount.

At this critical moment, as voting has begun, the American people deserve to have confidence that their leaders are placing the larger interests of democracy above all else.

We will now hear from several of our committee members: Dr. Charles Stewart of MIT; election officials Mr. Neal Kelley of Orange County, California and Ms. Dana DeBeauvoir, of Travis County, Texas; Dr. Juan Gilbert of the University of Florida; and Dr. Ron Rivest of MIT. 

Following their short comments, we will open the floor to questions from the audience. You may submit a question at any time during this webinar by entering it in the chat box below the video of this webcast.  Following the Q&A portion of this webinar, my co-chair, Mr. Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, will offer a few closing comments.