COVID-19 has resulted in unprecedented disruptions to American life, and these disturbances extend to elections. Increased voting by mail can help ensure participation in the midst of pandemic while also protecting the voting public and poll workers. Poll workers are especially a concern, as they would interact with potentially hundreds or thousands of voters on Election Day. A majority of poll workers are above the age of 60, placing them in one of the most vulnerable groups for the coronavirus.
The general election model proposed in Maryland seeks to balance the very real public health threat of congregating poll workers and voters with the need to hold a fair and free election. By allowing voters to mail-in their ballot, drop it off at a polling place, or vote at a voting center (where disabled assistance can be provided), voter participation can increase, even as we all continue to experience changes to American life due to community spread of the virus.
I applaud Maryland for taking steps to ensure access for voters while protecting public health. However, a change in the voting process does come with risk, and states moving to this or a similar model must manage risks to elections security.
Cyber, physical, and insider threats need to be considered
My academic research with Dr. Josh Dehlinger, professor, computer and information sciences, funded by BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore and recognized with a 2020 BTU Partnership Award, proves that a systems and holistic approach is needed for elections security; cyber, physical, and insider threats need to be considered to protect the integrity of votes cast. For the last 3+ years, Josh, Dr. Paul Goethals (United States Military Academy), and I, along with a team of nine TU students, have been working with Anne Arundel and Harford counties in Maryland to identify possible risks that could emerge on Election Day and how to mitigate them if they should arise.
I discuss cyber, physical, and insider threats, along with how those threats factor into mail-based voting in my recent op-ed in The Hill.
I am also a panelist, along with Brigadier General Francis X. Taylor (ret.) of US CyberDome, on an INFORMS webinar on elections security, which you can view below.
Research has shown that voter fraud has been historically low in elections, especially in elections where states already vote by mail. The main risk to elections security is in adversarial meddling or other actions that can compromise the integrity of votes. The risk posed by adversaries is real and continues in 2020.
Even with increased voting by mail, polling places cannot be ignored. Our work with Maryland counties counteracts threats that might emerge at a polling place by training poll workers to identify potential cyber, physical, and insider threats and then mitigate them if they do arise. Read more in the Baltimore Business Review about our training and about threats. Threat training for poll workers needs to continue for the general election, especially in Maryland, as voting centers will still be open on Election Day and during Early Voting and therefore still susceptible to threat.
It is important for state leaders to consider cyber, physical, and insider risks to elections security no matter if the public is voting in person or by mail. Adversaries do not stop their attempts to meddle and interfere, even during a pandemic. In a time when so much is on the line, and a presidential election is commencing, states and localities need to consider risk systematically and holistically, with consideration of new threats that may emerge while also balancing the health and safety of the voting public.