January 19, 2021

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The 2020 Election: Lessons Learned

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It’s probably safe to say that the 2020 general election went far smoother than most people expected.

Challenged by the arrival of the coronavirus early in the year, election officials in many states expanded and liberalized the ways in which we could vote. In the end, an astonishing 46% of our ballots were cast by mail.

At the same time, fears that mail voting would result in chaos and voter fraud turned out to be unjustified. Little evidence of voter fraud has surfaced, and legal challenges by President Trump and other Republicans have gone nowhere.

Nevertheless, a number of Republican state legislators are already making plans to tighten voting restrictions, including a crackdown on mail ballots.

In the absence of much evidence of fraud, it does seem that their motivation may be one of perception – the belief that, although it couldn’t be proven this time, expanded mail and absentee voting could go wrong.

And, like it or not, there’s no way to separate the issue from partisan politics. As Stanford University law professor Nate Persily said at a recent conference on election cybersecurity, “There is incredible polarization around mail balloting right now that did not exist to the same extent before this election. A lot of that is because Democrats are now so much more in favor of it than Republicans. Because of the way that the post-election period has shaken out, we are now in a situation where the very idea of mail balloting is triggering a partisan response that is very concerning.”

What Did We Learn?

Even though the votes got counted in a timely fashion and fraud apparently failed to surface, there is a lingering perception – at least among many Republicans – that current election systems can’t be trusted.

That’s why election and cybersecurity experts like professor Persily have been weighing in on the 2020 election and the lessons we can learn from it. Their contention is that accurate assessments can help to ease the mistrust and may lead to developments that would ensure more secure elections.

J. Alex Halderman, an election security expert from the University of Michigan, put it this way to Politico: “The big picture from 2020 is that ensuring an accurate result isn’t enough. Elections also have to be able to prove to a skeptical public that the result really was accurate.”

Specific Recommendations

In the Politico piece, experts make several “nuts and bolts” recommendations based on lessons learned from the 2020 election, including these:

  • Replace paperless voting machines. Without a paper record of every vote, it’s impossible to audit or recount results, or to rule out the possibility that a machine malfunctioned. There’s been a movement away from paperless machines, including in the critical battleground states of Georgia and Pennsylvania, where paper records made Republican challenges more difficult. However, nine state still use them, according to Politico.
  • Impose strict security standards. Federal security standards for voting machines and other systems don’t exist. It’s up to the states, and the standards vary widely.
  • Halt the push to Internet voting. The Internet is not secure. In May, three states announced plans to allow Internet voting for people with disabilities but dropped the plans after security experts dissuaded them.

Another point that could be publicly emphasized more strongly, according to the website Government Technology, is that mail voting is secure by its very nature. “(O)ne of the biggest cybersecurity investments election officials made this year was one of the most analog solutions: expansion of vote-by-mail services. For years, election security experts have lobbied for this to occur. Research has shown that it is one of the most secure forms of election administration.”

Another lesson, Government Technology said, is how important public education was in guiding people in how to vote. MIT professor Charles Stewart: “There was an amazing degree of public education in this election. It started in the campaigns, it went down to the election officials, to the traditional media, and to the social media, all working together to remind voters to … ask for the ballot early and get it back early.”

Other security experts are talking about how the election pointed out the value of using post-election “risk-limiting audits.” These audits use a statistical formula to determine how many ballots need to be counted to verify the accuracy of the results. Several states use them now, including Georgia, which used it for the first time in mid-November to verify Joseph R. Biden’s winning vote count.

Looking to the Future

The nation is polarized in many ways, including how we think of elections and how they should be administered.

Some states will take steps to restrict voting rights. Others, though, may look at the evidence from the historic 2020 general election and decide that expanded ballot access is a good thing – as long as it’s secure.

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