What is Tech’s Role in Supporting Safe Elections?

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While most of the technology talk around COVID-19 has revolved around testing and vaccines, disinfecting, telehealth, return-to-work and work-from-home solutions, there’s a significant event on the horizon that is already being impacted.  With the next U.S. presidential election coming in November, campaigning is well under way, and we have already seen how the pandemic has impacted primary voting. 

Some areas saw significantly lower turnout that expected, while others actually had an increase over 2016 primary voting.  Many states also grappled with the idea of mail-in ballots, with several states conducting their polling almost entirely by mail, including Ohio, Kansas, Oregon, Wyoming, Alaska, and Hawaii.  In states that conducted in-person polling, voters often had to wait in line for hours before being able to cast their ballots.

Many argue the U.S needs to move to online voting.  One of many problems with that theory is the country does not have a national infrastructure, and relies on each state to manage its own voting.  That’s in complete contrast to Estonia, the European nation that has made nearly all of its public services online.  During last year’s Estonia’s parliamentary elections, 44% of ballots were cast online. That’s the same country that brought us Skype, developed some of of the self-driving delivery carts that have become popular during the pandemic, and launched the world’s first e-residency program.

Back in the U.S., it continues to be hotly debated, with West Virginia and Delaware enabling online voting for at least some residents this year, though whether it will be allows for the November elections is yet unknown.  New Jersey also tested an online system with several local elections.

Aside from not having centralized voting oversight, there are other challenges experts say the U.S. faces with moving to an online voting system, not the least of which is cyber security.  In fact, within the security industry, there is very little confidence in states’ ability to manage online voting effectively. 

According to a recent study by machine identity protection company Venafi, 70% of security professionals believe their local governments cannot adequately defend election infrastructure against domestic and international cyber attacks.  The lack of confidence is not unfounded.  If you watched Kill Chain:  The Cyber War on American Elections, the documentary that premiered on HBO earlier this year, you’ll know that hackers have been able to exploit vulnerabilities in voting machines for years.

But that’s not the only issue.  The other technology-related election concern is the spread of disinformation, which 75% of the same experts say is the greatest current threat to election integrity.

“The election season is already in process and COVID-19 adds a new layer of security complications. Cyber attackers may take advantage of this period of uncertainty to undermine further public confidence by spreading disinformation.  As a result, it’s not surprising security professionals are concerned that governments won’t be able to safeguard election data.”

Kevin Bocek, VP of Security Strategy and Threat Intelligence, Venafi

The combination of disinformation campaigns and attacks on voting systems combine to cast serious doubt over whether the U.S. will be in a position to move its election processes online anytime in the foreseeable future. 

In the mean time, we’ll apparently have to deal with long waits, and hope the technology that is already available to ensure health and safety in public spaces is enough to drive strong turnout without compromising public safety.  That’s particularly important with the elections coming at the end of the year, when a significant second wave of COVID-19 is predicted by most health experts.

Solutions that monitor distancing and body temperature will be helpful (some even integrate automatic entry gate controls), as will clean air technologies that can disinfect occupied spaces.  Other solutions like UV-C lights and atomized misting can help with surface cleaning, and could require facilities to be closed for short periods throughout election days. 

There’s little doubt that COVID-19 will still be a major issue come November, and with online elections but a pipedream, the American public is going to have to rely on local governments implementing some of these solutions to provide safe voting environments.  Maybe a pandemic certification seal confirming safety procedures would help increase confidence levels.