Voting at the federal, state, and local levels is fundamental to American democracy, and citizens must have confidence in electoral systems, processes, and results. Electoral integrity and voter participation are enhanced by (1) ensuring that everyone with a legal right to vote is able to do so; (2) protecting such critical election infrastructure as storage facilities, polling places, and centralized vote tabulation locations; and (3) safeguarding such information and communications technology as voter registration databases, voting machines, and other electoral management systems. Fellows, Edie Goldenberg, Eric Hirschhorn, Barry Van Lare, and Academy Director of Strategic Intiatives, Joseph P. Mitchell, III discuss past, current, and potential efforts to combat these challenges.
There have been a lot of stories about voting snafus, but the media needs to report on how smoothly elections are running in most places. Also, it is important to have more discussions about the multiple checks in place to ensure that mail-in ballots are legitimately cast and counted. It would help if the National Organization of Secretaries of State would produce language about the professionalism of clerks, regardless of party, and their dedication to helping eligible citizens to vote. Including quotes from both Democrats and Republicans would help in this regard. Local clerks—where appropriate—might message more frequently about how things are going in their voting areas.
We need our elected leaders at all levels—federal, state, and local—to underscore the integrity and importance of our election system. Potential voters, and the American public generally, can access “trusted resources” the state and local election officials who are responsible for conducting the election. Almost without exception, those officials, members of both parties, are working hard to ensure access to the polls in the face of COVID-19 and to explain the process for validating and counting an unprecedented number of mail ballots. For information visit the National Association of Secretaries of State (www.nass.org) for #TrustedInfo2020 and the National Association of State Election Directors (www.nased.org).
The Election 2020 Working Group for this Grand Challenge noted that, after the election in November, a transition team will be formed whether President Trump is reelected or Joe Biden is elected. Immediately following the election, the elected President and transition team should publicly address any concerns that emerge as a result of the election and the planned transition. As a result, the transition team should expect to prepare such statements and signal a strong commitment to immediately addressing concerns regarding the 2020 and future elections.
In addition, the Administration in 2021 (whether reelected or newly elected) should take steps to:
Probably the most discussed threat is the extent to which registration systems and ballot counting systems might be subject to computer hacking. States and localities have been working closely with the federal government to identify and address threats as they may emerge. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is responsible for coordinating those efforts. For more information see https://www.cisa.gov/protect2020.
A second threat relates to the challenge of locating and staffing polling sites on Election Day as concerns arising from COVID-19, as well as current and potential natural disasters like forest fires and hurricanes impact the availability of traditional sites, the need for physical distancing, the importance of emergency preparedness and the need for new volunteer poll workers.
Despite some claims to the contrary, an election with a substantial proportion of mail-in absentee ballots can be conducted successfully and fairly. Given the exponential increase in the number of absentee ballots, there may be resulting reporting delays in counting, especially given the lack of poll workers and fewer in-person polling locations. State and local officials should be countering these threats by ensuring that they are prepared to handle these potential problems and by being in continuous communications with the public.
Having a paper backup for ballots is important. This not only ensures that the results can be audited, but also reassures voters that their voters are accurately counted.
The number of volunteers, including college students, is truly impressive. The volunteers are rising to the task of supporting our institutions in a challenging time. Although the number of volunteers is adequate overall, there are some specific difficulties—for example, in some large cities, in some rural areas, and on reservations. State and local officials could ask for additional assistance from their land grant universities and nearby colleges. I expect that these institutions would rise to the occasion.
The situation varies from state to state and even from locality to locality. Some jurisdictions report that the number of volunteers far exceeds the need while other continue to anticipate shortages. Where there is still time, consider volunteering to serve when possible and help spread the message among friends, colleagues and students. To the extent possible voters who are comfortable doing so should consider voting by mail or take advantage of opportunities for early in person voting.
A number of states have simplified the process for absentee voting, including efforts to facilitate online registration and online requests for ballots. A few are distributing absentee ballot requests to all registered voters. Other steps include things like removing requirements that absentee ballots be witnessed, prepaid postage on absentee ballots, drop boxes for the return of absentee ballots and expanded early voting periods and locations.
Public officials, advocacy organizations, social media and news organizations are all actively promoting voting and providing access to information and resources to support that effort.
While some will disagree, the is ample evidence to suggest that the current system is safe and secure. The challenge is to improve public understanding of the system and its inherent safeguards so as to counter the huge volume of misinformation that threatens to undercut public confidence.
As a general proposition, and given that frequent claims of election fraud have not been borne out by credible evidence, innovations that expand the franchise should be favored. These include more voting days—especially weekend days when many voters are not working—voter registration concomitant with the issuance of drivers licenses, same-day registration, and no-excuses absentee mail-in voting.
The Election 2020 Working Group for this Grand Challenge has emphasized there is no one-size-fits-all solution or approach to adapting long time election procedures to this new COVID-19 reality. Regarding voter registration, absentee and all mail voting, early in-person voting, and Election Day voting, it is justifiable to change or temporarily waive some previously established requirements given the pandemic. The Working Group has encouraged state and local governments to utilize all the tools at their disposal to address the COVID-19 challenges to the election system. Those include legislative changes, administrative changes, adequate funding, information gathering and sharing, working with new partners, and expanded efforts to keep the public informed.
Early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, online registration, online requests for absentee ballots, and the expanded use of absentee ballot drop boxes—these are all mechanisms to expand access to voting, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In my view, it is regrettable that some states have limited drop boxes, or provided them based upon county borders instead of population. Public support for electoral reforms and innovative voting mechanisms is high, and they are all secure from fraud.
We have established such a commission in Michigan, and it will ensure a fairer set of district maps after 2020. This work is vital because gerrymandering—by both parties across the country—damages the credibility of our electoral system by undermining our sense of fairness. The people should choose their representatives, not the other way around.
Clearly, gerrymandering is a problem. However, I have limited knowledge of how it is being addressed in individual states. For those interested in learning more some resources include:
National Conference of State Legislatures
Edie Goldenberg. Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan. Former Dean, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and Director, Institute of Public Policy Studies, University of Michigan. Founder of the Michigan in Washington Program. Chief, Civil Service Reform Evaluation Management Division and Research Division, U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Life Member, Corporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Eric Hirschhorn. Former Under Secretary for Industry and Security, U.S. Department of Commerce. Former Positions with Winston & Strawn LLP: Partner, Counsel to Predecessor Firms; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Export Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce; Chief Counsel, Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights, U.S. House of Representatives; Attorney, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP; Legislative Assistant to Rep. Bella S. Abzug (D-NY), U.S. House of Representatives; Counsel, Democratic Study Group, N.Y. State Assembly; Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellow, MFY Legal Services.
Joseph P. Mitchell, III. Director of Strategic Initiatives and International Programs, National Academy of Public Administration; Member, National Science Foundation Business and Operations Advisory Committee; Associate Director, Office of Shared Services and Performance Improvement, General Services Administration; Director of Academy Programs, National Academy of Public Administration; Project Director, Senior Analyst, and Research Associate, National Academy of Public Administration.
Barry Van Lare. Independent Consultant, Management and Public Policy; Former Deputy Executive Director and Director of Management Consulting and Training, National Governors Association; Senior Vice President for Strategic Marketing, MAXIMUS Inc.; Executive Director, The Finance Project; Senior Manager, Deloitte & Touche Consulting; Special Administrator for Gasoline Rationing, U.S. Department of Energy. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Welfare Legislation and Associate Commissioner of Social Security, U.S Department of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Former Commissioner, Erie County Department of Social Services and Director, Division of Community Services, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Positions with State of New York: Executive Secretary, Health Planning Commission; Director, New York State Senate Task Force on Critical Problems; Executive Deputy and Acting Commissioner, Department of Social Services; Assistant Secretary to the Governor for Human Resources and Deputy Commissioner, Division of Human Rights.