Reflecting on the 2020 elections

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Senior Policy Specialist and former candidate for the Utah State Senate Katy Owens Hubler reflects on the 2020 elections, the best-administered and most secure in United States history.

No election is perfect. A local election official once described Election Day as “Putting on 90 weddings, in 90 different venues, with temporary workers who only do this once every couple of years.” The logistics are complex and the human interactions unpredictable, so much so that you come to expect some unanticipated long lines and some fat-fingering of data that changes (innocently, not nefariously) result numbers somewhere along the line.

This year, election officials were dealing with a global pandemic and all the uncertainties of holding  elections under those circumstances, the threat of foreign interference, rampant disinformation about elections propagated by those at the very top, and unprecedented voter turnout. And in spite of all of that, this is the closest to a perfectly administered election that I’ve ever seen.

Sure, there were some isolated issues. There always are. But really, they were pretty small and nothing out of the ordinary. In Michigan, two counties experienced errors in result reporting initially, one due to the failure to update result reporting software and the other to an inadvertent counting of absentee ballots twice, both of which were caught and quickly rectified. The system worked as it’s supposed to. A bruhaha about using sharpies to mark ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona was overblown, as the way the ballots had been designed prevented the possibility of bleed-through and miscounting. There was a glitch with electronic poll books in Franklin County, Ohio where a file containing early voting information was too large to load. The county promptly reverted to paper poll books, the backup when these things happen (because they do sometimes).

But the most common way I’ve heard election officials describe this election? “Pretty smooth.”

We may learn more in the coming months, but so far it doesn’t look like we were the victims of foreign interference, and certainly not to the extent of 2016, when foreign adversaries directly targeted statewide voter registration databases in states and a number of election technology providers (for a deep dive into what happened in 2016 see the report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election from the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate). While no votes were changed in 2016, foreign interference revealed vulnerabilities in our systems and election officials have worked hard over the last four years to close those gaps. The fact that we didn’t see this type of interference in 2020 is a testament to the hard work and coordination between state and local election officials and the federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Election officials all over the country have taken crash courses in cybersecurity, beefed up internal security measures, and are sharing information like never before.

Disinformation and misinformation (yes, they’re different things) were also a real risk this election. And while we’ve definitely seem the spread of misinformation, particularly related to counting votes after the election, we’ve also seen the media take its time and get the language of vote counting right, social media networks flag inaccurate statements, and local election officials actively getting ahead of the narrative. This is a coordinated effort—but again, credit is due to CISA and its Rumor Control site for outlining the facts of how election administration works in the U.S., and challenging those who spread misinformation.

The most heart-warming thing for me this election cycle was the hashtag #ElectionHeroes. I’ve always known that election officials are heroes, the most dedicated and hard-working government officials out there. I’ve loved seeing them highlighted and celebrated this year, though, as they faced down quarantines due to COVID-19, aggressive poll watchers, and conspiracy theories. Election officials, poll workers and ballot counters all over the country showed grit, grace under fire, and an unwavering determination to continue our great democracy. We should all be proud.

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