Restore trust in our democracy through more election transparency

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It may be unclear whether broad-reaching election integrity and voter access bills will ultimately be adopted but one thing is certain: Congress needs to help restore trust in our elections, especially after the Jan. 6 insurrection and recent state efforts to unduly restrict voter access. Voters should trust their election officials to administer elections impartially, and the restrictive changes being contemplated by many state legislators can only make those officials’ already challenging jobs even more difficult. As former election officials, we can attest to this problem firsthand. 

One way to build on the successfully administered 2020 presidential election is to make the voting process more transparent. Nearly all local election jurisdictions now conduct elections using paper-based voting systems, and an increasing number are conducting post-election audits to confirm that the results are accurate as tabulated. To build on these measures and help address the lack of confidence across the nation in our elections, Congress should offer to provide the necessary funding to any states whose election officials wish to have secure live video feeds of their vote tabulation centers — where mail-in ballots are often received, verified, and counted.

Despite ample evidence that mail-in voting fraud is not widespread, a significant number of voters remain concerned that their votes will not be counted accurately if mailed-in, and many of these voters are especially concerned with the handling of mail-in ballots. Installing cameras in the rooms where ballots are sorted, verified, and counted would allow more people to watch the storage and processing of these ballots any time, day or night, which could lessen their fears about fraud and boost their confidence in these election processes.

Some could argue that live streams of the ballot count are too vulnerable to being manipulated or taken out of context, citing instances of this occurring during the 2020 election. While such information can certainly serve as raw material for people trying to create conspiracy theories, the risks do not appear to outweigh the rewards. For one, election officials can take certain precautions such as adding the date, time and location onto their feeds to prevent their livestreams from being taken out of context or misleadingly reframed.

Live video streams can also help refute mis- and disinformation and resolve controversies. For example, during the 2020 Presidential election, the Trump campaign repeatedly alleged that some observers were not allowed to observe the counting of votes. Footage from many of the locations live-streaming helped refute this allegation.

Others may argue that something could go wrong with the video feed, but this issue can be adequately addressed as well. To mitigate technical issues with the video feed — purposeful or accidental — it is important to secure the feed to the greatest extent possible, install a backup feed in the event the main feed goes down, and have a contingency communications plan in place to reach out to the public in case of a mishap.

It is also worth considering the many jurisdictions that already successfully engage in the practice. King County, Wash., offers livestream views of each of the steps it takes to count mail-in ballots, from sorting to verifying signatures on the outside envelope, opening and reviewing the ballots, then scanning and tabulating them. In Los Angeles County, Calif., the nation’s most populous voting jurisdiction, election officials live-streamed the vote-by mail-operation in which millions of absentee ballots were returned during the 2020 Presidential election. And in Ada County, Idaho, election officials added six additional surveillance cameras to its warehouse area before the 2020 general election to help the public better view the counting of ballots, especially absentee ballots. The additional cameras were recommended by a cybersecurity firm that tested Ada County’s election system for potential cyber interference from foreign sources.

Encouraging states and their localities to provide live video feeds of their vote counting operations will not single-handedly restore trust in our democracy, and it could initially even create some volatility because it would put the “sausage making” of elections on greater display, enabling more public scrutiny. However, it would ultimately be a major step in the right direction because crowdsourcing the election brings the greatest confidence. Such footage should make it easier for elections officials to defend their processes in the face of attacks, and harder for bad-faith actors to successfully peddle baseless allegations about the voting process. If voters are not sure whom to believe, they should be able to roll the tape and see for themselves.

David Levine is the Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan initiative housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He previously served in a range of positions administering elections. As the Ada County, Idaho, Elections Director, the Washington, D.C., Election Management Advisor, and Richmond, Va., Deputy Director of Elections, he has helped manage the administration of federal, state county and local elections. Follow him on Twitter @davidalanlevine.

Maurice Turner is the Cybersecurity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). He is a technologist and cybersecurity expert who most recently served as Senior Advisor to the Executive Director at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) providing subject matter expertise in support of local, state, and federal partners to administer elections fairly and securely.

Tags Absentee ballot claims of 2020 election fraud confidence in institutions Election integrity Elections mail-in ballots Paper ballots Postal voting Transparency Vote by Mail Vote counting

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