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Our Election System Is Resilient — but Still Has Room for Improvement

Voters can rest assured that safeguards are in place to protect their votes from cyberattacks and technical problems this November. But states still have time to make these measures even more robust.

Published: September 22, 2020

On Septem­ber 10, Microsoft announced that it had detec­ted ongo­ing cyber­at­tacks coming from Russia, China, and Iran, “target­ing people and organ­iz­a­tions involved in the upcom­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.” While it noted that the targets iden­ti­fied were “polit­ical organ­iz­a­tions,” rather than the private compan­ies and elec­tion offices respons­ible for main­tain­ing our elec­tion infra­struc­ture, it warned that the attacks were “concern­ing for the whole ecosys­tem” and urged elec­tion author­it­ies to “harden their oper­a­tions and prepare for poten­tial attacks.”

The warn­ing from Microsoft is a reminder that our elec­tion systems must be resi­li­ent against unfore­seen prob­lems that are sure to occur this fall. The need for adequate prepar­a­tion applies to cyber­at­tacks as well as other disrup­tions, includ­ing the coronavir­us–re­lated type of break­downs we saw during the primar­ies this past spring.

In June of this year, the Bren­nan Center issued a guide for elec­tion offi­cials entitled “Prepar­ing for Cyber­at­tacks and Tech­nical Prob­lems During a Pandemic.” Now, just several weeks before the last day of voting, it is a good time to ask: how prepared are we for a break­down in our elec­tion infra­struc­ture?

The good news is that there has been substan­tial progress in the last few years, and indeed the last few months, to imple­ment the kind of backup and secur­ity features that should allow all voters to cast ballots that will count, even in the event of a success­ful cyber­at­tack or other unfore­seen system fail­ure.

At the same time, there is still more that many juris­dic­tions can and should be doing to secure our elec­tions over the next few weeks. As diffi­cult as 2020 has been for the admin­is­tra­tion of elec­tions, we must use the remain­ing time before the final day of voting to ensure all remain­ing steps are taken to safe­guard a free and fair elec­tion. 

Below are some of the most import­ant steps states have taken to ensure voters can cast ballots if prob­lems arise. We focus in partic­u­lar on the 12 states FiveThirtyEight iden­ti­fied as of Septem­ber 17, 2020, as most likely to be “tipping point” states in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion: Arizona, Color­ado, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hamp­shire, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin. And we conclude the docu­ment with more recom­mend­a­tions of what elec­tion offi­cials can do between now and Elec­tion Day.

1. Audit­able Paper Records

Elec­tion secur­ity experts have long raised alarms about the secur­ity of voting machines that do not produce a paper record of each vote cast, as cyber­at­tacks against them could result in undetect­able changes in vote totals. Without voter marked paper records, there is no way to inde­pend­ently verify vote totals produced by the machines. Thank­fully, in 2020, a record number of voters will cast their vote on a paper ballot.

A Paper Record of Nearly Every Vote

Four years ago, one in five voters cast a ballot on paper­less voting machines. Since that time, elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try have transitioned to polling place scan­ners that read paper ballots (marked by hand, or in the case of a few juris­dic­tions like Geor­gia and parts of Pennsylvania, by machine).

Even in juris­dic­tions that still use paper­less machines, an increased demand for mail voting means that voters who would other­wise cast their ballots on paper­less machines will instead mark their votes on a paper ballot.

As a result of these changes, we expect that less than 4 percent of voters will cast their ballot on a paper­less machine this year. foot­note1_ww3t2gu 1 We estim­ate that 3.3–4 percent of votes will be cast on paper­less machines in the 2020 general elec­tion. To reach this estim­ate, we relied on Veri­fied Voting data to determ­ine the juris­dic­tions that will use paper­less voting machines as prin­cipal voting equip­ment. We excluded New Jersey from this list since the state will be send­ing every voter a vote-by-mail ballot and using provi­sional ballots for limited in-person voting. We relied on EAVS 2018 data to determ­ine the number of registered voters per juris­dic­tion. We then calcu­lated how many voters would use these machines under a range of absentee voting scen­arios. Our low-end estim­ate assumes that absentee patterns from the 2020 primar­ies will hold for the general elec­tion in “no-excuse” states, and we used past elec­tion and public survey data to estim­ate reas­on­able absentee voting rates for excuse states. Our high estim­ate assumes that all paper­less states will have the same absentee voting rates in Novem­ber 2020 as they did in 2016.  And voters will not use paper­less voting machines in the tipping point states or in any of the states most likely to determ­ine control of the U.S. Senate. foot­note2_6zfj5n8 2 Accord­ing to FiveThirtyEight, as of Septem­ber 18, 2020, the top eight closest U.S. Senate races are in Alabama, Arizona, Color­ado, Geor­gia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and North Caro­lina.

Audits

When offi­cials suspect prob­lems with the soft­ware used to count votes, a review of the paper record is a way to check its accur­acy. The Bren­nan Center and others have long argued that juris­dic­tions should perform routine post-elec­tion audits — an auto­matic check of the paper record, regard­less of whether prob­lems are suspec­ted — to ensure the accur­acy of elec­tion results. Nearly all tipping point states require such audits. While New Hamp­shire does not require post-elec­tion audits, a candid­ate there can request a hand recount of the paper ballots so long as the margin of victory is less than 20 percent of the total votes cast.

Although the wide­spread use of audits is reas­sur­ing, it should be noted that their qual­ity varies widely. Flor­id­a’s audits, for example, have been criti­cized for review­ing an insuf­fi­cient number of ballots and occur­ring after certi­fic­a­tion of results. At the other end of the spec­trum, Color­ado requires statewide precer­ti­fic­a­tion “risk-limit­ing audits” — a type of audit that is considered the “gold stand­ard” by secur­ity experts. It is designed to count enough ballots to produce a high level of stat­ist­ical confid­ence that the paper ballots and voting machine tallies show the same winner. And at least two tipping point states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, piloted statewide RLAs earlier this year. Fortu­nately, as discussed below, there is still time for many juris­dic­tions to increase the effect­ive­ness of their post-elec­tion audits.

End Notes

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. foot­note1_wcyl­9no 1 Arizona, Color­ado, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Nevada, and North Caro­lina all offer early voting, while Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin offer in-person absentee voting.

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. foot­note2_zllc8ko 2 Geor­gia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hamp­shire, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin. 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. foot­note3_jqhw6x9 3 Geor­gia, Nevada, North Caro­lina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

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. foot­note4_q07t9iw 4 Beyond North Caro­lina and Geor­gia, Pennsylvania requires emer­gency paper ballots for 20 percent of its registered voters. Ohio, whose secret­ary of state issued a direct­ive govern­ing the issue, requires its counties using DREs (i) to stock emer­gency paper ballots equi­val­ent to 15 percent of the total number of voters in the highest voter turnout year in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion start­ing in 2008, and (ii) separ­ately, to have at least 15 percent more provi­sional ballots (emer­gency paper ballots) than the highest number of provi­sional ballots cast in that precinct in 2008, 2012, or 2016.

Provi­sional Ballots

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. foot­note5_wugfy4m 5 At a minimum, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and many counties in Arizona require the use of provi­sional ballots in this situ­ation.  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.

End Notes

3. Mail Ballot Submis­sion Options

For this year’s elec­tions, mail voting rates have spiked across the coun­try, includ­ing in juris­dic­tions with histor­ic­ally low mail ballot usage rates like Geor­gia, North Caro­lina, and Pennsylvania. In the wake of recently imple­men­ted internal changes by the U.S. Postal Service, many ques­tion whether mail ballots can be delivered on time. In addi­tion to these unanti­cip­ated internal chal­lenges with deliv­er­ing mail ballots, a cyber­at­tack exploit­ing vulner­ab­il­it­ies in the USPS’s IT network could cause deliv­ery-related prob­lems impact­ing the elec­tion.

While there are legit­im­ate concerns about how prob­lems at the post office could impact the abil­ity of voters to cast their ballots on time, states have taken steps to ensure voters can receive their ballots quickly, know when and whether their mail ballots have been sent or received, have multiple options to return it (by mail or in person), and confirm their mail ballot has been submit­ted effect­ively. These actions should help ensure that post office disrup­tions do not disen­fran­chise large numbers of voters.

Online Absentee Request Portals to Speed Up Timelines

In most states, the mail voting process relies on a back-and-forth between elec­tion offi­cials and voters — voters must submit an applic­a­tion; elec­tion work­ers must process the applic­a­tion and send a ballot to the voter; and the voter must fill out and return that ballot to the elec­tion office. All of these steps must be completed by Elec­tion Day. During the primary elec­tions, states exper­i­enced signi­fic­ant mail delays, which lengthened these deliv­ery times and led to tens of thou­sands of ballots arriv­ing after the dead­line.

Many states have acted to speed up this process by allow­ing voters to submit mail ballot applic­a­tions through a secure online portal, which removes the post office from the first step and gets ballots into the hands of voters faster. Online applic­a­tions also allow for faster processing of applic­a­tions at the elec­tion office. At least 24 states allow voters to submit applic­a­tions through an online portal. Among the tipping point states, Geor­gia, Michigan, Minnesota, and North Caro­lina all launched online applic­a­tion portals after the pandemic star­ted, while Arizona, Flor­ida, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin already had these options in place.

Other states, like Color­ado and Nevada, remove the applic­a­tion step alto­gether and auto­mat­ic­ally mail ballots to all voters.

Ballot Track­ing Tools

Around the coun­try, states have broadly adop­ted mail ballot track­ing. The tech­no­logy allows voters to confirm whether (and when) their ballot has been sent by the elec­tions office, that their returned mail ballot has been received by the elec­tions offices, and that their ballot has been success­fully processed. Ballot track­ing provides faith in the system and, consequently, enables people to vote in person if the ballot cannot be returned in time). All 12 tipping point states offer ballot track­ing to their voters. foot­note1_2d9e6n3 1 Arizona, Color­ado, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hamp­shire, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin.

Multiple Options for Mail Ballot Drop-Off

To address voter concerns about lengthened postal deliv­ery time of mail ballots, all tipping point states provide a way to return mail ballots without rely­ing on the post office, in some cases provid­ing multiple options. Altern­at­ive submis­sion options include drop off of mail ballots in drop boxes, at elec­tion offices, at early voting sites, and on Elec­tion Day at polling places. foot­note2_777u95a 2 In Ohio, the Demo­cratic Party has chal­lenged the secret­ary of state’s direct­ive limit­ing drop boxes to one per county. In light of this direct­ive and its desire to provide a greater number of oppor­tun­it­ies for drop­ping off mail ballots, Cuyahoga County has been seek­ing to allow drop off at librar­ies. Arizona, Color­ado, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wiscon­sin allow voters to drop off mail ballots in drop boxes. Some offices in New Hamp­shire allow voters to drop off mail ballots in drop boxes that must be super­vised at all times. Minnesota, New Hamp­shire, and Pennsylvania allow voters to drop off mail ballots at elec­tion offices. Arizona, Color­ado, Flor­ida, some counties in Geor­gia, Michigan, Nevada, North Caro­lina, and Wiscon­sin allow voters to drop off mail ballots at early voting sites. Arizona, Color­ado, some counties in Geor­gia, Nevada, New Hamp­shire, and some cities in Wiscon­sin allow voters to drop off of mail ballots on Elec­tion Day at polling places.

End Notes

What More Can Be Done?

With 42 days until Elec­tion Day, large-scale changes to elec­tion systems and tech­no­logy are not possible in most cases. Never­the­less, there are import­ant steps that elec­tion offi­cials can take to help make sure that every voter can confid­ently cast a ballot.

1. Educate voters

More than 500,000 mail ballots were rejec­ted during the primary elec­tions this year. The most common reas­ons for rejec­tions were that the envel­ope was miss­ing inform­a­tion such as a signa­ture, or the ballot arrived after the dead­line — prob­lems that will only be exacer­bated by the larger number of voters using mail ballots during the general elec­tions. These defi­cien­cies can be avoided, or at least mitig­ated, through public educa­tion campaigns that encour­age voters who want to cast mail ballots to request and send in their ballot as early as possible; sign their ballot envel­opes and satisfy any other require­ments that states may have, such as a witness signa­ture or notary; and use secure drop boxes and in-person ballot return options, partic­u­larly within a week of Elec­tion Day. Encour­aging voters to request and return mail ballots early will both yield a lower rejec­tion rate and reduce the stress on elec­tion work­ers and systems. Like­wise, elec­tion offi­cials should encour­age voters who want to vote in person to vote early, redu­cing stress on Elec­tion Day polling place systems and allow­ing offi­cials to resolve any issues well before the last day of voting. 

2. Supply more paper backups

Every part of the polling place voting process that relies on tech­no­logy should have a paper failsafe in place, allow­ing voters to continue cast­ing ballots until the tech­no­logy issue can be resolved. As previ­ously noted, paper failsafes include backups for elec­tronic poll­books, emer­gency paper ballots for juris­dic­tions where voters use machines to make selec­tions, and provi­sional ballot supplies in case voter eligib­il­ity cannot be confirmed. Where gaps exist, elec­tion offi­cials should make sure that each polling place will be prepared with supplies on Elec­tion Day. Despite the elev­ated need for provi­sional ballot supplies this year, most juris­dic­tions either have no provi­sional ballot supply require­ment or they tie the require­ment to past provi­sional use. Print­ing addi­tional provi­sional ballot supplies is an obvi­ous failsafe with limited down­side. There is still time to print higher levels of provi­sional mater­i­als for 2020, and extra mater­i­als can simply be saved for future elec­tions.

In addi­tion, elec­tion offi­cials should make sure that poll work­ers know how to use backup paper resources when needed. During the Geor­gia primary, voters waited in long lines while machines were down because some polling places ran out of emer­gency paper ballots, while in other polling places poll work­ers did not know how to locate or use these paper ballots. Increased supply require­ments and more robust train­ing can help address these concerns.

3. Conduct more robust post-elec­tion audits

While every tipping point state is required to conduct a post-elec­tion audit, elec­tion offi­cials should consider going above and beyond minimum stat­utory require­ments where there is room to do so. For example, the Geor­gia state elec­tion board passed a regu­la­tion to surpass stat­utory require­ments for 2020 by conduct­ing a risk-limit­ing audit. Offi­cials in Michigan and Pennsylvania have simil­arly conduc­ted pilot risk-limit­ing audits over the past year to prepare for more routine use in future elec­tions. Even where there is not time to conduct a risk-limit­ing audit, offi­cials should consider whether they can make their current proced­ures more robust to provide greater public confid­ence in outcomes.

4. Secure and test elec­tion systems

Finally, there is still time to imple­ment some basic meas­ures to protect elec­tion systems and to test and verify that everything works before Elec­tion Day. In partic­u­lar, elec­tion offi­cials should

  • change pass­words on key accounts 7–10 days from the elec­tion;
  • review and update any IT resi­li­ency and continu­ity of oper­a­tions plans;
  • ensure that key person­nel have up-to-date contact inform­a­tion for cyber incid­ence response support; and
  • review social media accounts for content and reach to voters

Each of these steps should increase secur­ity in the final days and weeks of the elec­tion while requir­ing relat­ively few resources during an extremely busy time.

Conclu­sion

No elec­tion is perfect. We should expect that there will be some prob­lems as tens of millions of Amer­ic­ans vote this fall under unpre­ced­en­ted and extraordin­ar­ily diffi­cult circum­stances. Ulti­mately, the most import­ant ques­tion is not whether Elec­tion Day prob­lems — whether caused by a Russian cyber­at­tack, an unex­pec­ted surge in Covid-19, or simple admin­is­trat­ive error — will occur. Rather, it is whether the system is resi­li­ent enough to over­come those diffi­culties so voters can cast ballots that will count.

When it comes to cast­ing and count­ing of ballots, juris­dic­tions around the coun­try — and crit­ical tipping point states in partic­u­lar — have taken import­ant steps to ensure that their systems are robust and that cyber­at­tacks or other tech­nical prob­lems should not disrupt the abil­ity to conduct a legit­im­ate elec­tion. In the coming weeks, states must effect­ively execute these resi­li­ency plans and take the appro­pri­ate addi­tional meas­ures that they have the time and resources to imple­ment.