Pandemic Serves Up Security Woes for Election

As if the issue of election security were not complex enough before 2020, the current concerns about standing in crowds of voters amid the pandemic have only further ramped up concerns about November’s election. Issues such as how to potentially implement a surge in mail-in voting in states that are open to it and addressing cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and other pre-pandemic concerns all take on an even more urgent tone now that COVID-19 has changed life as we know it.

There are no firm plans yet in place across the country on how to address secure and safe voting in an era of social distancing, and many have little idea what their elections will look like at this time.

“Financially, state and local governments are on the ropes right now,” said Mike Hamilton, former CISO for Seattle and CISO of cybersecurity firm CI Security. “It’s been made even more difficult to secure the elections now that the question is how they even conduct an election when people are afraid to go in stand in line.”

In April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $484 billion economic stimulus measure that some election officials had hoped would also include provisions to help states and local jurisdictions with financial support for needs such as increased mail-in voting and enhanced voting security.

But that bill, a companion to a law passed by the Senate, did not contain such funding. It follows legislation passed in March, the CARES Act, which included $400 million for states to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” But that was far below the $2 billion hoped for on the Senate side and $4 billion asked for on the House side.

Using figures from a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School titled “The Estimated Costs of COVID-19 Election Resiliency Measures,” lawmakers were seeking much more to expand mail-in voting options and to put polling center changes into place to safely maintain in-person voting. Additional funds would also have been earmarked for educating citizens on the procedures for voting during the pandemic.

‘A Failure’ to Provide for States

Without what many analysts point to as adequate support and funding, Hamilton questioned how November will now play out. He pointed to April’s statewide election in Wisconsin, where citizens were confused and many waited in hours-long lines to vote, and where shortages of polling workers and voting places made the situation chaotic. Wisconsin is a cautionary tale he hopes will not be repeated in November.

“A lot of people didn’t get a chance to vote,” said Hamilton. “It is a failure to support states in their need to do something about their elections. And if it continues, the elections will be decided in the courts because of that failure.”

Hamilton is an outspoken proponent of mail-in voting, but also conceded at this stage it is likely too late for it to be implemented nationwide, especially as some states are resistant to the system.

“Mail-in voting is off the table for this election,” he said. “But if you are going to do in-person voting, you’re going to have to increase the number of polling places to avoid compressing people. And you will need more training.”

Hamilton noted he also thinks more training and effort needs to be put into stemming the tide of misinformation that was already a problem before COVID-19 arrived and will continue to be a problem as the election draws near. The changes and chaos due to the pandemic also can be an opportunity for those with ill-intent to spread misinformation that could keep voters away.

Zoom Training: Prepping States for Secure Elections Virtually

Training state and local election officials is the aim of a recent program launched at the University of Southern California. USC’s Election Security Initiative has been rolling out virtual training to municipalities after the pandemic stemmed plans for in-person sessions. The initial goal was to help states combat interference from Russia and other U.S. adversaries. Now the focus is on that and so much more.

“Security concerns now are more urgent in almost all cases because the virus has really exacerbated security issues,” the initiative’s executive director, Adam Clayton Powell III, said in an article in the Washington Post. “It’s not an abstraction. It’s very real for people that they’ll have to do this work in a more urgent climate than they anticipated.”

Several new issues are now being addressed in the virtual trainings, including preparing for a surge in mail-in voting (where it is an option), and recruiting less vulnerable populations, such as young people, to work at polling places.

“Elections right now are very much a work in progress,” Powell said in the Post article. “Running an election isn’t easy and changing things at the last minute introduces a level of complexity and concerns about security that are not trivial.”

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Joan Goodchild

Joan is a veteran journalist, editor and writer who has been covering security for more than a decade. She has written for several publications and previously served as editor-in-chief for CSO Online.

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