The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

Safeguards in place to protect voters as USA election draws near

Kevin Schembri Orland Wednesday, 21 October 2020, 19:45 Last update: about 2 months ago

The issue of possible voter fraud due to the voting by mail system being used by States in the US Presidential election has been a hot one this year, however there has been a lot of misinformation about the issue.

US President Donald Trump has been raising concern about mail-in voting. The Associated Press (AP) had reported, on September 30, that in the final segment of the contentious debate between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, Trump launched into an extended argument against mail voting, claiming that it is ripe for fraud and suggesting mail ballots may be "manipulated." "This is going to be a fraud like you've never seen," the president said of the massive shift to mail voting prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.


However many argue that mail-in voting is safe and that a lot of misinformation about the issue has been published. AP, for example, stated that "mail voting has proved to be safe and secure in the five states that already use it broadly. And while some irregularities and errors have occurred in the early vote, Trump mischaracterized those incidents."

David Levine, an Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said that of all the election misinformation this year, false and misleading information about voting by mail has been among the most rampant. He spoke about the safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the election

The Alliance for Securing Democracy is a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall fund of the United States. They bring together experts on disinformation, maligned finance, emerging technologies, election integrity, economic coercion, and cybersecurity, as well as regional experts to support election security. Levine spoke during the US Foreign Press Center's Elections 2020 Virtual Reporting Tour.

 "According to Zignal Labs, a media insights company, of the 13.4 million mentions of voting by mail between January and September of 2020, nearly a quarter of them were misinformation or appeared to be," Levine said.

Levine said that this is of concern as more voters than before are expected to make use of mail in voting due to the pandemic.

He said that there have been countless independent studies and government reviews done that have found voter fraud to be extremely rare in all forms, including mail in voting. In terms of security, "mail-in ballots or paper ballots are hand marked by the voter, and that's considered the gold standard of election security because that allows voters to verify their choices and of course it allows election officials on the backend to be able to verify the validity of the election results."

In addition, the vast majority of States have a number of protocols in checks and balances in place to ensure that mail-in voting is secure, Levine said. "Those include signature verification protocols to ensure that the signature election officials have on file matches what's on the mail-in ballot that's been submitted to their offices, and there are a number of other checks and balances that exist as well."

Levine, a security expert, spoke about the security of the USA's electoral system, and foreign interference.

 "On September 10th, Microsoft reported that it was seeing increasing cyber-attacks originating in Russia, China, and Iran targeting its customers, including attacks against political groups and the presidential campaigns of President Trump and former Vice President, Joe Biden."

In a blog post, Microsoft detailed efforts by three major foreign hacking groups to target the campaigns along with other political organizations, individuals, and think tanks, "including the one I worked for, the German Marshall fund of the United States," he said.

He explained that while the targets of these attacks were not election officials, Microsoft warned that the attacks were concerning for the whole ecosystem and made clear that foreign activity groups were stepping up their efforts to target the 2020 election. "A sentiment consistent with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Communications on election security threats, including its recently published Homeland Threat Assessments. The warning from Microsoft is a reminder that our election systems must be resilient against unforeseen problems that are likely to arise during the 2020 presidential election."

Describing the electoral system, Levine said that unlike many other countries the administration of elections in the U.S. is highly decentralized. "Elections are primarily administered by thousands of state and local systems rather than a single unified national system. At the federal level, congress has the authority to regulate elections... and Congress has passed legislation in the major functional areas of the voting process, such as voter registration and prohibitions against discrimination. It has also periodically authorized appropriations or appropriated funds to help States upgrade voting equipment and strengthen election security," Levine said.

The role for state and federal elections resides primarily with each state, he explained, while adding that no state administers elections in exactly the same way as another state. "States regulate many aspects of elections, including the process to register to vote, the process with regards to mail balloting, as well as early voting requirements." The organisation is then further divided.

"Within each state, responsibility for planning and conducting elections is largely a local process with over 8,000 local election jurisdictions nationwide."

Covid-19 has been a disruptive force world-wide, and this is no different in the USA.

"The increased use of mail ballots due to COVID-19 protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic could leave officials with incomplete results on election night, and that's okay. Certainly it isn't evidence of nefarious conduct. However, foreign actors could exploit the time required to certify and announce election results by sharing information that includes reports of voter suppression, cyber-attacks, targeting election infrastructure, election fraud, and other problems with the intent to convince the public of the elections legitimacy or illegitimacy."

While voters should feel confident that safeguards are in place to protect their votes from cyber-attacks and technical problems that could arise for the presidential election, "there are still some opportunities for States to make their systems even more robust between now and November."

He did say, however, that there's been "substantial progress made to implement the kind of backup and security features that should allow all voters to cast ballots that will be counted even in the event of a successful cyber-attack or other unforeseen system failure."

States have, for example, taken steps to ensure that there will be a paper record of nearly every vote for 2020, he said. The director for the Cyber Division of the Department of Homeland Security recently estimated that 92% of voters will vote on paper ballots that can be audited, he added. "Even in jurisdictions that use paperless machines, an increased demand for mail in voting due in part because of the Coronavirus will likely lead to even more voters voting on a paper ballot."

It's also worth noting that voters who not using paperless voting machines are not in tipping point States or any of the States most likely to determine control of the U.S. Senate, he added.

There are going to be a large number of people who are expected to vote in person this year, and election officials have taken a number of steps to ensure that in-person voting will not be stopped even in the event of cyber-attacks, election technology malfunctions, or other disruptions, he said. "One example is that there's more early in person voting than there's ever been. And that's really important because if there's more voting spread over more days, and locations, and more times, that helps ensure that an attack against or failure in the infrastructure on any particular day is less likely to disenfranchise large numbers of voters."


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