VOTING DURING A PANDEMIC:
COVID-19 SAFE VOTING AND ELECTIONS
America already has a tough time getting its electorate to the polls, and with COVID-19 concerns for congregating in polling places, the constitutional right to vote may become a life or death activity for some. Technology-enabled elections will be a consideration for jurisdictions looking to provide safe voting options for upcoming elections.
In 2016, if there had been three presidential candidates on the ballot: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Did Not Vote, Did Not Vote would have won in 43 states. America already has a tough time getting its electorate to the polls, with an average of 6-12% of eligible voters voting in primary elections, and an average of 35-55% of registered voters voting in general elections during presidential election years. Add the COVID-19 concerns of congregations of people in polling places affecting those with underlying health issues, and now the constitutional right to voting has become a life or death activity for many Americans.
Think about that for a moment. Even with early voting, polling places will have unimaginably long lines in order to maintain the necessary social distancing to keep Americans safe and avoid packed gymnasiums, as were seen in Los Angeles during the California primary election last month. And unless voters live in one of the only five states that hold their elections by mail—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—we are now asking over 8,000 jurisdictions to dramatically shift how they have been conducting in-person voting for several decades, and/or learn how to conduct statewide vote-by-mail elections at a time of limited resources, people, and infrastructure.
Simply put, technology-enabled elections will be a consideration for jurisdictions to provide COVID-19 safe options for all Americans to participate in the remaining primary elections and the November general election this year.
The shift to technology-enabled elections is driven by America’s new “work from home” culture being powered by cloud technologies. Social distancing restrictions have shown us that broadband internet is the new public utility, akin to electricity and phone service; and cloud computing is capable of connecting millions of Americans across both public and private sectors at a time when congregating can kill. It is this “new normal” that propels traditional voting into the digital age—an age where vote confidentiality and integrity are equally as important as the freedom and availability to vote.
For most Americans, voting is simple: register to vote, then go to your local polling place and cast your ballot. Assuming you are without disabilities, this is a simple act with little fanfare. Yet if a voter has underlying health issues and does not live in one of those five vote-by-mail states, their constitutional right to vote has just become life endangerment.
Prior to COVID-19, this dire situation would have been an unimaginable scenario, because we are the United States, and we always have options. As it stands today, when someone is unable to vote for any number of reasons, jurisdictions provide absentee ballots which are mailed to the voter, returned, and counted. However, the absentee mail-in ballot system was made to support hundreds and thousands of ballots, not millions. Processing millions of mail-in ballots across all states and territories would not only take an incalculable amount of manhours, it would also delay initial results by days, with recounts delaying final results by weeks. On top of that, error rates tend to increase as more and more human hands touch a ballot, assuming there are no COVID-19 impacts to mail service operations.
Election management is a complex process far beyond the realization of most voters. Jurisdictions are tasked to define election parameters, configure and validate voting equipment, register and authorize voters to receive ballots, record and count ballots, generate election results, and produce printable audit reports to ensure election integrity.
Jurisdictions will have to determine how they will implement technology-enabled elections based on what they believe is best for their constituency. Some may choose to use secure web portals for at-home ballot marking with options for voters to print, email, or fax in their ballots, whereas others may choose to implement end-to-end verifiable voting solutions with full-suite voter authentication, authorization, and cryptographic features. Regardless of the solution, with the threat of foreign meddling in US elections, smartphones being hacked, and ballots being intercepted, it is of utmost importance that all technologies used in elections undergo rigorous validation by government agencies and independent testing firms to ensure security controls and processes adhere to industry best practices.
Technology has already proven itself to increase efficiencies and capabilities during this COVID-19 pandemic, and whether jurisdictions decide to use technology for one, some, or all components of managing an election, we need to consider its use today to save lives tomorrow.
Contact the ShiftState Team.