Preparing for November's election must be a national priority

Preparing for November's election must be a national priority
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The coronavirus pandemic is testing our nation’s resolve and already disrupting our way of life. But we can’t afford to let it disrupt the November election.

Six states have already postponed their primaries. More will likely follow in the weeks and months ahead.

With a risk that the pandemic will continue through November, the hard work to plan for the election must begin now. The American people deserve a national bipartisan effort — including leadership from the policy and technology communities — to ensure the integrity and continuity of American democracy.

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The good news is that this important work was underway long before the pandemic. Since 2016, national and state leaders have prioritized strengthening the security and integrity of U.S. elections with bipartisan engagement from the Obama and Trump administrations. Congress has invested more than $800 million in new funding for state and local election systems over the past two years. 

Recent efforts to modernize state and local election systems have focused on addressing potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Managing this risk should remain a priority, particularly given the recent cybersecurity attack against the Department of Health and Human Services. We should plan for foreign adversaries to exploit potential opportunities to undermine and divide our country.

But we now face a new, graver threat in COVID-19. National, state and local officials will need to work together to adapt the American election system to address the challenges of a pandemic. 

We all hope that society returns to normal sooner rather than later. But if “social distancing” to “flatten the curve” of potential infections is required through November, state and local election officials must consider new strategies to administer the election.

One promising strategy is to expand vote-by-mail, which is already common for absentee ballots and Americans living overseas. According to the National Association of Secretaries of State, 33 states and Washington D.C. allow vote-by-mail for non-absentee voters. Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats: A moment in history, use it wisely The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus MORE (D-Minn.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCongress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits Hillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse MORE (D-Ore.) recently introduced legislation to allow all Americans to vote by mail. 

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Expanding this option to all communities, combined with widespread early voting, offers a promising option for states seeking to support social distancing while encouraging voter turnout and participation.

But vote-by-mail does come with risks, particularly concerns about voter integrity and ballot harvesting. We must ensure that votes sent by mail are counted accurately. The policy and technology community should work together to quickly develop best practices and practical solutions to address these concerns to ensure voter confidence.

One aspect of vote-by-mail to consider would be to design ballots in a manner that provides voters with an electronic receipt (such as a “QR code”) that they can use to electronically verify their vote was counted. This process, combined with other checks-and-balances, such as the creation of a state election integrity ombudsman, could establish a system where voters can independently audit whether their vote was counted accurately.

Officials should explore other ways to use technology. For example, mobile applications could allow voters to gauge the voting location wait times and check in to their preferred paper ballot drop-off or in-person voting location. This activity would alert the poll registration system to the increased voting demand and likely resulting wait times. The same monitoring data can be shared with a variety of services supporting voting wait time web sites and mobile mapping applications like Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps. This could allow for the election day voters to maximize their options for voting while supporting social distancing.

Experts from the policy and technology community should work together to consider these and other options to support our state and local election officials.

We should all have confidence in the public servants responsible for administering our elections. In January, the nation’s Secretaries of State and state election directors met in Washington. While Congress debated impeachment across town, state officials were having nuanced discussions about all aspects of election administration. In our deeply partisan times, these state leaders are working together in a spirit of nonpartisanship that should make us all proud.

Much is uncertain about the weeks and months ahead. But history shows us that we can hold an election during even the most difficult times. The United States held elections in 1864 during the height of the Civil War and in 1944 when the Greatest Generation was fighting World War II. 

It may be our responsibility to hold a presidential election during a pandemic. The time to prepare is now.

Dan Lips is Director of Cyber and National Security and Sean Roberts is a Senior Internet Security Engineer with the Lincoln Network.