Trusting Our Elections: What makes our elections secure?
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Ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Americans remain divided over the integrity of the election. This is despite Congress having certified the results, and officials across the political spectrum assuring the public that the 2020 election was secure – perhaps “the most secure in American history.”
But what does it mean to have a secure election? Is it ensuring that our systems are protected from cyberattacks? That we have ways to independently verify every vote? What about consistently investing in new technologies and resources for election officials?
For Mark Lindeman, interim co-director of the nonpartisan organization Verified Voting, it’s all of the above – and then some.
“Doing better objectively and technically does not automatically translate to protecting American elections,” he says. “Voters need to have some fundamental belief that election results are trustworthy. And we can’t congratulate ourselves to the extent that we’re failing to provide that.”
In this episode of “Rethinking the News,” we delve into what truly makes our elections free, fair, and secure. With guests Mr. Lindeman and Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
This is the first of two episodes on trusting our elections.
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Jessica Mendoza: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. Here, we create space for constructive conversations across a range of issues and perspectives, to give you the information you need to come to your own conclusions. I’m Jessica Mendoza.
Samantha Laine Perfas: And I’m Samantha Laine Perfas.
Jess: The 2020 election has been certified. Officials across the political spectrum have come out in force to support the integrity of the results.
Sam: They’ve refuted President Donald Trump’s false claims of election rigging.
Jess: And on Tuesday, January 20th, former vice president Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States.
Sam: But many Americans still have doubts. Ahead of November 3rd, Gallup found that public confidence in the accuracy of election results matched record lows of the past 15 years.
Jess: Another poll, by Morning Consult, found that only 27% of Republican voters say they trust U.S. elections. That’s down from 72% in September.
Sam: We saw a lot of that distrust play out during the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week. Even though election officials nationwide are insisting that the 2020 presidential election was free, fair, and secure – conspiracy theories about our election continue to thrive.
Jess: So today we’re kicking off a two-part series to explore this tension. First, what does it mean to have secure elections? And second, why does the idea of election fraud continue to be so compelling to so many?
Sam: In this episode, we’ll be focusing on the question of election security. We have two guests: The first is Mark Lindeman. He’s the interim co-director of the nonpartisan organization Verified Voting, which promotes the responsible use of technology in elections.
Jess: We also have Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Sam: Let’s begin.
Jess: Thank you again for joining us, Mark. Could you start by giving us the definition of a free, fair and secure election?
Mark Lindeman: Well, you didn’t start easy, did you? I mean, all these terms are qualitative. They’re not absolute. And election security in particular, it’s always a work in progress. It’s been called a race without a finish line. But I think free, fair, and secure means in the end that the candidates have had a fair chance to compete. That voters who are eligible to vote had a fair opportunity to do so, and that everyone can have justifiable confidence that the winners of the election, the reported winners, actually won, you know, really had more support among voters.
Sam: Hey, Mark, this is Sam here. So I’m curious then, in order to achieve that, what factors do you guys take into account when you think of what makes up such a system?
Mark: So Verified Voting is focused on the security aspect of this. We’re concerned about it being technically sound and also that voters have a basis for confidence that it’s technically secure. Because it’s not good enough for election security to be something that election officials know or that experts know. There needs to be a way to reassure the public as well.
Jess: Could you talk a little bit more about that, in terms of how we effectively communicate to Americans that the process is trustworthy, in a way that overcomes partisan biases or suspicions?
Mark: So by providing ways to verify and to document really the chain of evidence that leads to election outcomes, that also provides a way for election officials and media to tell the story of how American elections operate and what the bases for trust are. As far as voting systems themselves, the single most important thing is that voters be able to verify their votes, recorded on actual paper ballots.
People don’t often think of paper as a technology, but of course, historically it absolutely is. And it’s probably the best technology we have even now for indelibly recording voter intent. So it may well be that the 2020 election was the best documented election in a century or more. That’s phenomenal. It’s perhaps the opposite of the narrative in some people’s minds.
Sam: When Jess and I were talking about this with our editors, one thing that we kept thinking about was the difference between saying something like, “there’s no voter fraud” versus “there’s no widespread voter fraud.”
Sam: Because we know that the system’s not perfect. So I guess, you know, it might seem like semantics, but do you think that failing to distinguish between those types of statements can have consequences or contribute to distrust or the spread of misinformation?
Mark: Well, I think that if people say unbelievable things, they will not be believed. So I would not identify it as a primary cause. But I think that, unfortunately, sometimes public officials fall into the trap of overclaiming and thereby being discounted. I never want to say without qualification that American elections are secure. But at the same time, I don’t want my hemming and hawing to be interpreted as signaling that everything is broken. And in ordinary life, we simply characterize many things as safe, knowing that they’re not perfectly safe, but also knowing that it’s rational and appropriate not to live in existential dread about them. So I think a lot of the need is to communicate to voters and the public at large more of the story about all the legitimate bases for confidence in elections, without in any way glossing over the work that remains undone. Which we’re passionately committed to.
Sam: So in this election, I’m curious, from your perspective, if there were legitimate concerns that were raised, especially around regulation changes in response to the pandemic, you know, increasing mail in voting. Were some of those more legitimate? And how did Verified Voting navigate those concerns?
Mark: I think that any massive change in election procedures is going to create potential security flaws. And 2020, for many jurisdictions, was a time of multiple massive changes. Pennsylvania and Georgia, for the first time statewide, was using paper-based voting systems. So that provided a basis for voters to verify their ballots and know that their votes had been recorded correctly. The difficult news is that election officials honestly were creating almost on the fly all their procedures for handling, storing, preserving those ballots. I don’t think that’s occasion for terror, but there are always going to be security issues in that case. Now, simultaneously, as you said, many jurisdictions were vastly expanding the use of vote by mail, and that raised all kinds of very real challenges in balancing access to ballots with authentication and security.
So at a high level, it would be crazy not to be somewhat concerned about, well, are election officials able to do all the things they need to do at this time. Part of our problem in this country is we take elections very seriously when we perceive them going badly or something going wrong. So here, the crown jewel of American democracy, we don’t treat it that way at all. And we certainly don’t treat our election officials like the heroes that in 2020 they really were.
Jess: Could you talk about what the takeaway, or takeaways, might be from everything that’s happened in the past year? What have we learned and what can we bring with us as we move forward?
Mark: Well, I think one thing we’ve learned is that a lot of rapid progress is possible. And if you had told me at the beginning of 2017 just how many people in the 2020 presidential election would be voting on paper and how much progress election officials would have made towards really shoring up the voting system, I would have been, you know, delighted and astonished by just how much progress was made. And I think we really saw that success in all the problems that did not occur on Election Day. In many ways, it was the most trouble-free Election Day in many, many years, which, of course, is partly because many people voted before Election Day more than ever.
Jess: What do you mean by that? What usually, what kind of issues do election officials usually face, poll workers usually face, during big election days like this?
Mark: Long lines, which often have to do with trouble getting equipment to work in the first place. Equipment failures, reports of votes apparently being flipped. You know, all kinds of things that either prevent voters from voting or raise howling grave doubts that their votes are being recorded and counted accurately. So by no means was 2020 the miraculous, perfect election. But in terms of the trouble reports that we monitored and that election protection hotlines monitored, it was, frankly, a shockingly clean election.
I think the other takeaway, it’s maybe not news, but it’s clearer now than ever, is that doing better objectively and technically does not automatically translate to protecting American elections. Because the biggest threat to American elections, in my view, is really in the American mind. Voters need to have some fundamental belief that election results are trustworthy and we can’t congratulate ourselves to the extent that we’re failing to provide that.
Sam: Mark, as we move forward, how important is it that this process remain nonpartisan? How important is that to the narrative, to the civic culture, and just to us moving forward?
Mark: Well, it’s everything. It’s everything. I really wish I could convey to voters my experience of working with election officials around the country and often not knowing whether I’m talking with Republicans, Democrats, independents, what have you. Honestly, election officials in the trenches generally don’t have time to think about it. They don’t have time to worry about it. They’re just trying to get people’s votes counted. They’re just trying to get the system working for their voters. I think we need to find every possible opportunity to communicate that.
And I think we’ve seen that manifest, right? We’ve seen a very sharp political division in the aftermath of the election. But among election officials, we have not. There is no stark divide between Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, among election officials on lower levels. And that’s because, by and large, they’re deeply committed to their work. They take pride in it. And they don’t habitually accuse each other of felonies with no evidence or basis whatsoever. And that actually is a very strong culture that we all would benefit from seeing and learning from.
Sam: Thank you so much, Mark, for joining us and giving us your perspective, it’s really helpful.
Mark: It was a pleasure. Boy, this election is a lot to think about, huh?
Jess: That’s for sure.
Sam: An understatement.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. So thanks for your thoughtful questions. I enjoyed the conversation.
Clay Collins: Hi everyone. I’m Clay Collins, Director of Editorial Innovation for the Monitor. Because of listeners like you, our reporters are able to bring fresh perspectives and new voices to the stories of the day. If you’re enjoying “Rethinking the News,” consider subscribing to The Christian Science Monitor. Go to csmonitor.com/subscribe to learn more. That’s csmonitor.com/subscribe. We really appreciate your support.
Sam: Welcome back. We just finished speaking with Mark Lindeman, the interim co-director of Verified Voting.
Jess: Now joining us is Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Sam: Larry, thank you for joining us. You’ve been researching and working in the election space for years now. I’m curious if the concerns and the conspiracies we’re hearing about election rigging or fraud are those new?
Larry Norden: I would say in one sense it’s not new. What is new is having candidates after the election arguing that the result was not legitimate. We saw that a bit in 2016, but this is the first time that I’m aware of that we’ve had anything close to such a high-profile figure argue after the election that the results couldn’t be trusted and really have that argument repeated by so many high-profile figures.
Jess: To what degree is that different than what happened in 2000? I mean, Al Gore bringing up the vote count in Florida, was that not questioning legitimacy?
Larry: Yeah, well, the difference is that the election hadn’t been settled. So there were questions about what the final vote total would be. But as soon as the Supreme Court ruled on Bush v. Gore and the election was certified, Al Gore conceded. So that’s the difference, is there was a concession from the candidate, and there wasn’t a concerted effort on the part of major leaders of the party to continue to try to contest the election results.
Jess: You also mentioned 2016. I think after that election, we did hear a lot about how our election systems were vulnerable, particularly to foreign interference from both sort of a technological and an administrative perspective. And then in 2020, we’re able to say, you know, our election was the most secure in American history. I think it’s sort of understandable that folks might be confused as to how that progressed.
Jess: In what ways did we beef up our election systems in that time?
Larry: Yeah. So first of all, I think it’s important to remember what happened in 2016. Hackers associated with Russia conducted research and reconnaissance against election networks in every state, and they breached at least one state voter registration database. They attacked a local election board. They apparently infected the computers at a voting technology company. So this was a huge wake up call for the federal government, for state and local governments, and for election officials. So in response, Jeh Johnson, he was the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, made election infrastructure critical infrastructure. That meant that a whole bunch of federal resources were available to election officials to beef up the security of their systems.
And then state and local governments took a lot of actions. Prior to 2016, it was a rare thing to see election security covered as a topic in a convening of election officials. After 2016, whenever I went to any convening of election officials, it was always a topic. There was a lot of training of election officials around election security.
And there was a move away from paperless machines. One of the biggest vulnerabilities we have in the United States is machines that had no paper record of the vote so that if there was a hack into those systems, a failure of those systems, or even just suspicion of problems with those systems, there’d be no way to go back to some independent record like paper and confirm the results. We saw how important that was for Georgia, right? For the first time in a presidential election in decades, they had a paper record of every vote and they actually counted those votes twice afterwards to confirm that the results were accurate.
Sam: It’s interesting to think that, you know, talking about election security, the way that we are talking about it today is a relatively new issue that’s come up. How is the conversation around our election security having to change to adapt to the digital age? And what are some of the factors that you guys are looking at in terms of how to keep elections secure?
Larry: So there’s no question that computerization of our elections has meant that we have to think about security in a new way. There are a lot of benefits. It’s easier for people to register. The whole registration process is less expensive. It’s faster to count votes. Right? People were complaining about how long it took to count the votes. But if we didn’t have computers to help us count those votes, we would still be counting. The 2000 election gave us a pretty clear example of what happens when you’re using outdated equipment. We had all these hanging chads. It was difficult to determine voter intent, and that was a big source of the dispute in the 2000 election. Modernizing our elections meant that we really reduce those kinds of problems. But it does mean that we have to worry more about cybersecurity and making sure that we have backup systems, whether it’s because there’s been a hack or just because sometimes technology fails. We can ensure that people can continue to register, can continue to vote, and that we can audit and ensure that our election results were – were accurate.
Jess: Would it be fair to say that technology has provided a lot of advantages to both securing our elections and giving people access to elections, but at the same time, we need to learn to balance that with other ways, not relying so much on technology?
Larry: So, yes, I think technology has improved elections in many, many ways, but you never want to be solely reliant on any one thing. And so, you know, it just means rethinking what security is. Election officials have always spent time thinking about backup plans. And you have to think differently when you’re using computers than when you’re using, for instance, a lever machine.
Sam: In thinking about, like, where we were in 2016 and all the investments and work that went into making our elections not just more secure, but also more available to voters and just more modern, that’s a lot. That’s a lot of change that has happened. It’s a lot of – I guess I’m just thinking from the perspective of the voter, do you think that might be contributing to some of the concerns that we’re seeing right now, just the speed at which change happened that made voters more uncomfortable in a way we maybe didn’t predict?
Larry: I don’t think most people spend a lot of time thinking about election security. They get their information from people that they trust and that starts with maybe their president or their member of Congress. And if those people are providing misleading information about how trustworthy the system is, then you’re going to get a lot of people who believe them. So, you know, look, there’s no question, covid made big changes for everybody. But I think most of the changes, had there not been this kind of commentary, would be reassuring to people, right? As I said, many more people were voting on a paper ballot than we’ve seen in decades in the United States. You can’t hack a paper ballot. Additional days were provided for people to vote. I think most people would generally say, especially during a pandemic, that’s a good thing, to give people more options.
Jess: Is there anything we could do – we, as well as our political leaders – is there anything that we can do so that Americans, regardless of party, feel that they can trust the process again?
Larry: The first thing starts with telling the truth. That comes from us, people who are working in this space. It certainly comes from our political leaders, as well, to talk about what we are doing to ensure that the system is secure, to be as transparent as possible about that – to invest in elections and election security and to talk about that when we’re doing it. You know, there are things – I mentioned that all of the battleground states in this election had a paper record for every vote. They also audited that afterwards. There’s also like a whole canvassing process that happens, but I think a lot of people don’t know about it. So when you hear claims like “there were more votes than people that came in,” no, that couldn’t happen. There’s a canvassing process that happens where we’re looking at the total number of people who signed in in a polling place. We’re comparing the total number of votes. We’re then comparing the paper record to the electronic totals. All of that is public, but we could probably do a better job of making sure that the public is aware that those things are happening, that they can see them.
At the end of the day, though, I think, there’s a reckoning that needs to happen. There are some political leaders who have been using false claims of fraud for political advantage. People who have done that have seen only one side of the equation there. And they haven’t thought about the bigger cost, which is when you start telling people untruths about the integrity of the system, they start to doubt the system entirely. And you can’t have a democracy that works if people don’t trust that it’s going to give you accurate results. You can’t have a democracy that works if the losing side doesn’t believe that they’ve lost.
Sam: Larry, I’ve got just one more question. What gives you hope that we can get back to a place of having integrity, having trust, and protecting our democracy?
Larry: Election officials give me hope. It’s kind of remarkable. For all of the controversy that we’ve had around the 2020 election, that we were able to pull it off. We had these cybersecurity concerns. We had concerns about a nation-state attacking our elections. We ran a massive election during a pandemic, and we did it successfully. We had the highest turnout in over a century in the United States, during a pandemic. So it really was a remarkable accomplishment. And that work was bipartisan. And I am hopeful that when partisan tempers cool, that we’re going to see Republicans and Democrats come together to work and say, “Look, now it’s time to invest in our elections and to invest in trust in our elections.” And if we can follow the example of election officials of both parties who did that over the past year, that gives me a lot of hope.
Sam: Larry, thanks so much for joining us and just sharing all your insight today.
Larry: My pleasure.
Sam: Thanks for joining us. In our next episode, we’ll hear about conspiracy theories.
Jess: Why do people find them so compelling –
Sam: – and how do they affect our elections, and those who work to secure them?
Sam: Again, that’s csmonitor.com/subscribe.
Jess: This episode was hosted, reported, and produced by me, Jessica Mendoza, and Samantha Laine Perfas. Liz Marlantes, Mark Trumbull, and Yvonne Zipp were the editors. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.