2. More Secure Polling Places
Even with a record number of voters expected to vote by mail this year, recent polls suggest that a clear majority may still vote in person. Election officials have taken steps — including the expansion of early voting and mandatory deployment of backup paper supplies for use in the event of system failures — to ensure that voting can continue in the face of technological failure or other disruptions.
Early In-Person Voting
Early in-person voting, which allows voters to cast a vote in a polling place or election office prior to Election Day, provides an additional option for voters who are unable to vote on Election Day, who do not trust postal delivery, or who do not receive their requested mail ballots in time. This fall, 42 states and the District of Columbia will offer some form of early voting (up from 37 states and the District of Columbia in 2016), including 11 of the 12 tipping point states.
Moreover, since the pandemic, jurisdictions in several states have expanded early voting hours and/or the number of early voting locations, including Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
By spreading voting over many more days, officials in these states can ensure that an attack against or failure in their election infrastructure on any particular day is less likely to disenfranchise large numbers of voters. For example, if there is any breakdown during early voting, voters can choose to wait for the problem to be fixed or return to vote at another time. Moreover, with more people turning out during early voting, fewer voters are affected by disruptions on Election Day itself.
Backup to Mitigate Electronic Pollbook Disruption
Electronic pollbooks, or e-pollbooks, are laptops or tablets that poll workers use instead of paper lists to look up voters. They are currently used in 41 states and the District of Columbia.
When functioning as intended, e-pollbooks expedite the administration process, shorten lines, lower staffing needs, and save money. Unfortunately, there are no federal security standards for the use of these systems, and security experts have raised concerns about their vulnerability, especially when they are reliant on wireless connectivity. In addition to these security concerns, breakdowns in these systems have resulted in hours-long lines and high use of provisional ballots in polling places around the country.
Having e-pollbook backups at the polling place allows poll workers to confirm voters’ eligibility in the event of a breakdown, which diminishes the potential for long lines and may minimize the need to issue provisional ballots. Of the 12 tipping point states in the presidential election, 9 require a paper backup to be available in the polling place.
Arizona requires “a printed roster or other contingency plan.”
Of the other two, some counties in Florida, including Palm Beach, require such backup, and Colorado’s limited use of in-person voting (as a result of its comprehensive mail ballot voting system) means the absence of a backup would be less of a potential problem than it would be elsewhere.
Emergency Ballot Requirement in Case of Machine Failure
In five of the tipping point states, all or at least some voters use direct-recording electronic (DRE) or ballot-marking device (BMD) voting machines to make their selections. This contrasts with the remaining seven states, where voters mark their ballots by hand.
BMDs and DREs present unique security challenges. When they fail, long lines can develop if voters are forced to wait while the machines are repaired or replaced. In contrast, where ballots are marked by hand and then fed into scanners, machine failure should not prevent people from voting; ballots can be stored while machines are repaired.
Fortunately, four of the five tipping point states where voters use machines to make selections require emergency ballots to be available at polling places so that voting can continue while machines are down. While Nevada does not have a statewide requirement for emergency paper ballots, the state is sending a mail ballot to all voters, so in-person voting (and the disenfranchisement that might occur if voting machines fail on Election Day) is likely to be more limited than it otherwise would be.
The number of emergency paper ballots required in case of system failure varies by state. On the more careful side, North Carolina requires that precincts that use BMDs stock emergency paper ballots in an amount equivalent to 50 percent of total registered voters. This should easily allow all voters to continue to vote during peak voting periods, even if all machines in a polling place are down. By contrast, Georgia requires emergency paper ballots for just 10 percent of voters, which would not be sufficient during the worst-case scenarios. Of course, there is nothing that prevents jurisdictions from exceeding these minimum requirements, which we urge them to do.
Provisional ballots allow voters to cast a ballot when their eligibility to vote cannot be confirmed. The ballots are kept separate from other ballots and counted later once election officials can determine that the voter was eligible.
There are at least two reasons to expect that there may be greater need for provisional ballots this year. First, for voters who request mail ballots but decide instead to vote in person, many states will require they vote by provisional ballot.
It is reasonable to assume that there will be an unusually large number of such voters this year.
Second, if there is a successful cyberattack against a state’s voter registration database or electronic pollbooks, voter registration information or voting history could be corrupted (by removing voters from the rolls, for instance). Under those circumstances, provisional ballots might represent the only opportunity to prevent long lines from forming and jeopardizing people’s ability to vote. There is no public evidence that database integrity has been violated in recent months, but it is well-documented that agents of the Russian government targeted and infiltrated some voter registration databases in 2016.
All the tipping point states except Minnesota and New Hampshire (which have same day registration) use provisional ballots for a variety of eligibility concerns, although none have statewide requirements specifically defining an adequate provisional ballot supply for their polling locations.
Adequate and Backup Staffing Measures
As Covid-19 spread across the country this spring, many states learned that their disaster plans were insufficient, and tens of thousands of voters were disenfranchised. In the intervening months, jurisdictions around the country have developed processes that should reduce similar problems this fall.
One of the biggest failures was a lack of a backup plan to ensure sufficient staffing for in-person polling locations during a pandemic. A shortage of poll workers who canceled at the last minute because they feared exposure to Covid-19 during the primaries resulted in a large number of polling location closures. At the same time, and sometimes because there was insufficient staffing, many polling locations experienced technical failures with voting machines and electronic pollbooks and were unable to recover in time to avoid hours-long lines.
Jurisdictions are taking a number of actions to avoid similar problems this fall. In Michigan, the state is recruiting poll workers statewide, directing applicants to jurisdictions that need the most extra assistance, and building a reserve list of poll workers that can be deployed throughout the state on Election Day in case of last minute cancellations. Officials in some states, including Florida and North Carolina, are providing public employees with paid leave to work at the polls on Election Day. And some professional associations, such as the Kentucky Bar Association and the Ohio Accountancy Board, now offer continuing education credits to members who serve as a poll worker. In Georgia, the state announced a plan to have a trained technician onsite at every polling location.
Election officials across the country are thinking creatively and aggressively campaigning to get polling locations the help they need for November. They’ve been helped by a coalition of companies around the country who have recruited their own employees to serve at the polls, adding hundreds of thousands of extra workers.