Over the past few years, much has been said, argued, litigated and broadcasted about the security of democratic choice, ranging from the effects of big data companies on people’s free will to vote and on the integrity of ballots. But what do we actually know about these issues?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, election security in the USA has reached unprecedented levels – indeed, Chris Krebs, the former head of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency who was recently dismissed went as far as claiming that the 2020 US Election was the most secure in history. Defence protocols for such elections include vast guidelines on technological security, including cyber defence mechanisms, training, physical security, and countless checks and balances to ensure that voting is done in a legal and authentic manner. Some examples include:

Election Workers

  • Almost all processes and procedures require that 2 or more trained personnel are involved. These officials take an oath to uphold state election laws and protect the security of the election. Representatives of political parties or candidates, sometimes even members of the public, are entitled to observe election activities.

Voter Registration

  • This is a process which certifies that only eligible voters are allowed to cast a ballot. This also enables the tracking of who has cast a ballot. Voters who do not appear on the registration list or do not have the required form of ID, can cast a provisional ballot.
  • All database traffic is monitored and routine backups take place. Additionally, only authorised personnel have access to the database.

Mail Ballots

  • Strict rules and procedures determine how mail ballots are to be processed. Mailed envelopes must be signed so that the signature can be compared to that of the voter’s registration form.

Election Equipment

All equipment must pass logic and accuracy tests to verify that ballots will be counted correctly.

To prevent any form of tampering with such equipment, most jurisdictions prohibit such equipment from being connected to the internet. Every time that such equipment is handled by someone must be documented.

Ballots and election equipment are typically secured with tamper evident seals and transported to polling places in secure containers.

  • When in use, they are monitored by personnel who are specifically trained to notice and respond to any suspicious behaviour – and when not in use, voting equipment is stored in a facility accessible only to trained election personnel.

Furthermore, during the 2018 midterm Election cycle, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the Election Task Force (ETF) and the Countering Foreign Influence Task Force (CFITF) to coordinate federal support to the election community. Through #Protect2020, a wide range of offerings and services to build outreach programs and engage local election officials in the over 8,000 election jurisdictions across the country. CISA builds these crucial relationships within the election community by supporting election officials in their efforts to identify and plan for potential vulnerabilities to elections infrastructure ahead of and during the 2020 election cycle. CISA engages political campaigns by supporting the development of non-partisan informational products and conducting voluntary assessments, partners with the private sector to collaborate on best practices and vendor security, and works towards raising public awareness about foreign interference efforts.

It is safe to say that a lot of work was undertaken for the 2020 US Election, but while instances of voter fraud, mistakes which may arise, and foreign interference particularly by means of big data will still pose a threat in the US and elsewhere, democratic institutions will need to continue adapting and modernising themselves to ensure that confidence is maintained in democracy.