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How Government Officials Delivered a Disaster-Free Election

Despite fears that COVID, cyberattacks and misinformation might jeopardize results, voting was smooth and secure. What contributed to this outcome, and how might lessons learned affect future elections?

County election officials examine ballots.
Cobb County, Ga., election staff at work recounting ballots on November 13, 2020. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
The 2020 general election was an epic test of election official fortitude. Added to the usual complexities of planning and executing a national election was responsibility for the very lives of voters during a pandemic that has claimed twice as many American lives as two years of fighting in World War I. 

As they prepared, election officials were on constant watch for potential cyberattacks and foreign disinformation designed to disrupt their operations and American democracy itself. This work was further complicated by a campaign undertaken by President Trump, who vigorously used the power of his office, social media and campaign rallies to cast doubt on their plans and to undermine confidence in the election process.
Despite all, they prevailed. Election Day disasters that had been imagined as real possibilities did not materialize. A statement released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency called the election “the most secure in American history.”

Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting and the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL), isn’t surprised. “These are people who, when you give them a job, they say, ‘Let me make a list. Let me make a plan. Now I'm going to execute it,’” she says. “Worrying about the political universe floating about them is not on that list.”

Although some of Trump's core supporters continue to insist that the president is a victim of election malfeasance, lawsuits have failed to present evidence of this. In the meantime, election officials are moving steadily toward certifying their results. Even Karl Rove, described as a “warrior” in past GOP voter fraud campaigns, agrees that the outcome is not in doubt

Singleness of purpose might be one factor, but what else accounts for Election Day success?

The Impact of COVID

Election officials began planning for the 2020 election in early 2017. The unanticipated threat of COVID-19 loomed heavily over what was already going to be a challenging election, according to New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). 

“That made everybody laser-focused on trying to plan and get out ahead of both foreseen and unforeseeable circumstances,” she says. “In a strange way, the pandemic put such fear into the hearts of all of us that we were really going above and beyond what we would normally do to prepare for an election.”

Ricky Hatch, the county clerk/auditor for Weber County, Utah, agrees. The 2020 election was about as bad as it could get. Fortunately, he says, election officials are “control freaks.”

“We have backup plans for backup plans – we prepare for the worst,” he says. “I think the main reason the election went so well is because election officials at every level were prepared.”

States worked closely with local election officials to make the changes necessary for voters to cast their votes safely, says Lori Augino, president of the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) and director of elections for the Washington Secretary of State. 

“This is always a team effort, but this year showed how important that relationship is,” she says.

As the extent of the adjustments necessary to make voting safe came into focus, it became apparent that changes to voting law would be required. The team expanded. “In many states, legislators made adjustments to various processes, including more early voting, and more absentee voting,” says Underhill.

These changes in process created a need for greatly expanded voter education.

Informing Voters

“We saw all kinds of creative efforts nationwide – social media, traditional media and so much more,” says Augino. In Washington, this included hundreds of media interviews, ads on television and radio and advertising voting centers and drop boxes on the Waze app. Augino even did an “Ask Me Anything” session for NASED on Reddit.

Non-partisan groups, corporations and the media also worked overtime to help voters understand the rules for COVID-era voting, from how to obtain a vote-by-mail ballot in states that didn’t send one to every voter, to the options for returning a ballot, tracking it and making certain that it would be counted. 

“Voters were so much more well-informed, so much sooner than usual, about how, when and where to cast a ballot,” says Toulouse Oliver. “For as long as I’ve been doing this, I have never seen so much commitment to covering the process of the election, whether from local or national outlets.”

This outreach included a drive to recruit poll workers to find replacements for seniors, Election Day stalwarts who would be put at unacceptable risk. Toulouse Oliver was a county clerk in the largest jurisdiction in New Mexico for 10 years before she became secretary of state and knows well that it can be hard to find enough election workers.

The response to the call to serve was like nothing she had ever seen. The clerk in her county needed a thousand election workers in all for November; she filled every spot and had a waiting list of 500 more on standby.

“I’ve heard anecdotes like that from jurisdictions all over the country,” she says. “We had a record number of election workers this cycle, despite the fact that we have this disease raging, and there’s no doubt that the effort from election officials and partner groups contributed to that.”

It wasn’t just poll workers who showed up in record numbers. Voter education contributed to the highest voter turnout in a century, but it wasn’t the only cause.

More Options, More Motivation

“The message was clear from the middle of the summer onward that you need to make a plan before you go to vote so you know what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it” says Underhill. This was all the more important because voters had more options than ever, from early voting periods, to multiple ways to return a vote-by-mail ballot. 

Providing new options, and helping voters understand how to access them, created a good deal of extra work for election officials, but it also proved to be helpful, says Gowri Ramachandran, counsel in the election security program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“Each of these options almost became the fail safe for each other,” she says “For instance, when voters started losing faith in the speed of the mail system, they had another option of voting early.”

Although there were some controversies regarding drop boxes, including isolated incidents of vandalism and unauthorized installation of several dozen “official” boxes by Republicans in California, they proved to be popular. Neal Kelley, the registrar of voters in Orange County, one of the nation’s largest election jurisdictions, installed his first drop boxes in 2019.
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A woman drops her ballot into an official ballot drop box Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Burbank, Calif.
“In the March primary, we had 150,000 voters use them for the first time, just out of the gate,” he says. “This election we had more voters using them at one point than were using the mail.”

Some voters may have been disheartened by messages that sowed distrust with expanded voting options implemented in response to the pandemic. But in an election where both sides believed the stakes were higher than ever, it also motivated voters to be much more proactive.

“They planned early, made sure their signature would match and their ballot wouldn’t get rejected, tracked their ballots,” says Ramachandran. “There was an urgency to participate and to make sure their voice was heard.”

Flattening the Curve

One sign of heightened voter engagement was the speed at which mail ballots were returned. Kelley mailed ballots to voters on Oct. 5, and began to receive completed ones by Oct. 6. Orange County has 1.6 million registered voters, and before Election Day arrived he had received about 1.1 million ballots. “That was historic for us,” he says.

In-person early voting options were adopted or expanded in many states, making it possible for voters who couldn’t, or preferred not to, cast a vote by mail to avoid Election Day crowds and potential exposures.
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A group of North Carolina voters stand in very long lines on the first day of early voting. (Shutterstock)
“We mail every registered voter a ballot in Washington, so we’ve worked closely with our local USPS for more than a decade,” says Augino. “USPS was an especially important partner this year since more voters chose to vote by mail, and my colleagues across the country worked hard to strengthen these relationships and learn lessons from their primaries.”

“Between absentee voting and early in-person voting, we flattened the curve,” says NCSL’s Underhill. “So many people voted one way or another before Election Day, that Election Day was not as intense as it had been in previous years.”

Another factor contributing to calm, before and after the storm of voters, was an unprecedented partnership between election officials and the Department of Homeland Security.
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Pages from Real Fake, a graphic novel created by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to help voters understand the roots of disinformation. (Source: CISA)

Elections as Critical Infrastructure

In 2017, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement expressing the view that election infrastructure should be considered a subsector of critical government infrastructure. He observed that “cyberattacks on this country are becoming more sophisticated, and bad cyber actors – ranging from nation states, cyber criminals and hacktivists – are becoming more sophisticated and dangerous.”

In his definition, “election infrastructure” includes everything from storage facilities, polling places and vote tabulation locations to registration databases, voting machines and other systems. In 2018, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) was established, charged with “leading the national effort to understand and manage cyber and physical risk to our critical infrastructure.”

Election security was within its domain, opening the door for state and local government officials to free resources, training and services from professionals with unsurpassed understanding of the risk environment.

Election officials at all levels express gratitude for the help they have received from CISA. “I’d say we have double the security platform that we saw four years ago,” says Neal Kelley. “It’s a combination of things -- better detection, better firewalls and software, as well as working on physical security with the FBI and Homeland Security.”

The work of upgrading equipment, technology and the skills of election officials began before the coronavirus outbreak, says Ramachandran, and paid off when the system had to meet the challenges of the pandemic.

“By all appearances, it seems that it prevented any sort of really devastating cyberattack that would stop voters from making it to the polls,” she says. “A number of jurisdictions replaced aging equipment that was falling into disrepair – the impetus may have been security, but it also meant that equipment wasn’t breaking down while people were in line to vote.”

The Next Election

It’s early to attempt a definitive assessment of the 2020 election. The election’s not yet over, says Lori Augino, the NASED director. Ballot counting, recounts and certification are still ongoing.

“When we’re done with all of that, every jurisdiction will spend time thinking about this year, and looking at what went well, what could have been better, and how we can grow and improve for the next election,” she says.

The pandemic created unique stresses and forced innovations that some jurisdictions may not be willing to continue in ordinary circumstances. Those with the power to change election codes may see political reasons to discontinue them. Voters may behave differently.

“I don’t know that the permanent takeaway from this unusual election is that everybody is going to get their application in early, everyone’s going to vote early and mail their ballot back early,” says Maggie Toulouse Oliver. “But election officials are going to want to memorialize policy changes that made things so much better and easier this time around.”

For now, Weber County’s Ricky Hatch would like to see his colleagues get the recognition they deserve. “If I could decide who should be on the cover of Time magazine as the Person of the Year, I would choose local and state election officials,” he says.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at carl.smith@governing.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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