COVID crisis amid election season: 3 threats to consider before making a very important decision

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The 2020 primary season was unprecedented to say the least. Amid COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the country, states varied in their decisions as to whether or not to send their constituents to vote at the polls. Drastic action was taken at the last minute in some areas, while other areas saw the consequences of their indecision later. Now, as we look toward the general election, it’s essential that states make a decision early considering three types of threats. The best course of action in this pandemic is a combination of mail-in voting with some in-person voting.

In February, we saw the Iowa caucuses struggle to report results due to troubles with an app. This was before the extent of the pandemic was discovered in America. As time wore on, the prospect of sending Americans to the polls became more dire. Ohio abruptly cancelled its in-person voting the night before the election while Wisconsin kept the election as planned and then saw a spike in COVID-19 infections days later. Michigan held its primary right before the start of widespread infections and saw polling sites short staffed, especially in the Detroit suburbs which was attributed to poll workers calling in sick from pneumonia the day of the election.

The question of whether to proceed with mail-in versus in-person voting remains for the general election, as numerous public health officials, as well as the White House, predict the possibility of a second and more deadly wave of infections this fall. President Donald Trump has expressed his view that mail-in voting increases the likelihood of fraud. However, research shows that voter fraud is historically low in elections, especially in elections where states already vote by mail. Regardless of the method of voting, the potential for foreign interference remains. We find the best solution lies in a combination of mail-in and in-person voting.

As states make these voting decisions in the coming months, it’s essential to have all the facts, not only about COVID-19, but three other known threats to elections:

The first is cyber threats.

This is the most common type of threat and the one election officials and think tanks have been worried about even before 2016. Cyber threats are related to digital equipment and media, regardless if those devices are connected to the Internet. Cyber threats include hacking of voter registration data, which Russia attempted in 2016, as well as compromising memory cards used to collect votes during in-person voting. Cyber threats are a great concern in both in-person and mail-in elections, although mail-in elections vastly reduce the cyber threat because most of the voting is done away from computers by using pen and paper ballots. Cyber threats can be mitigated by strong encryption and using secure passwords that change frequently as well as paper trails and ballot auditing.

The second is insider threats.

These threats come from people who are part of the voting process. This could include a poll worker who makes an honest mistake by accidently discarding or incorrectly counting the number of ballots, a voter who disrupts the process by using a cell phone, and mail-in ballots being accidently discarded. The riskiest insider threats include forged signatures and attacks at mailboxes to steal or compromise ballots. Insider threats have been generally ignored or downplayed by the academic and policy communities, but they are one of the biggest concerns, because people cannot be controlled. Systems and computers can be protected from hacks through best practices and security software such as malware detection, but people are not machines. They make choices and take action. Insider threats are a bigger concern with mail-in elections, as so much of the process is dependent on people and are not done electronically. Mitigations for insider threats include thorough training of poll workers and bipartisan teams of watchers while mail-in ballots are being counted and processed.

The third is physical threats.

Physical threats stem from tampering with or disrupting equipment. These threats include leaving voting equipment unattended, not securing access compartments on equipment and weather events (such as wind and rain) that destroy mailed-in ballots. Highest risks include issues with the post office and lost ballots, but these pale in comparison to the cyber and insider threats. Mitigations for physical threats include testing equipment before voting begins and preserving chain of custody for both ballots and voting equipment.

There is no evidence that any of these threats actually compromised votes in 2016, but the threat of meddling and interference from foreign adversaries, such as the Russian Federation, is, according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony, ongoing and continues to occur. The best course of action in this pandemic is a combination of mail-in voting with some in-person voting.

Mail-in voting would prevent the problems in the Georgia and Wisconsin primaries of long lines while an in-person component still ensures access for those who need it, did not receive a ballot, are disabled, or just feel better voting in person. Furthermore, the problems with lines, broken equipment and not enough ballots in Georgia occurred mostly in neighborhoods populated by persons of color, who are now known to suffer the effects of COVID-19 on a disproportionate scale. The key is access. Now, more than ever, as the pandemic continues to claim lives, tens of millions are unemployed and the inequities of this country are laid bare, all Americans need to vote and have the ability to do so in a reasonable and safe manner.

States and localities need to be mindful of all types of threats and how those threats change over time and by how people vote. Mitigating all three types of threat is completely possible, and the time is now for states to be funded for the tools they need for secure, free and fair elections.

Natalie M. Scala, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the director of the graduate programs in supply chain management in the College of Business and Economics at Towson University. She is also an active member of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Science (INFORMS) and is currently serving as the President of the institute’s Military and Security Society.

Tags Donald Trump election hacking Elections in-person voting mail-in voting Robert Mueller

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