By Scott Manning
How confident are you that your vote in the November elections will be protected against hacking and that malicious software intrusions will be blocked? According to Corrales’ Bob Perls, upcoming elections in Sandoval County and in much of the United States remain vulnerable to the same kinds of threats that jeopardized the 2016 election.
The report by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller proved that Russia engaged in a coordinated campaign to influence that election. The Russians coordinated a social media campaign to spread misinformation and hacked voter databases. Although the impact of Russian election meddling is unclear, Russian efforts demonstrated that the U.S. election process is susceptible to outside influence.
And there is reason to believe that Russia could try these kinds of tactics again: Russia was caught attempting to meddle in elections throughout Europe just last year.
Primarily to better secure the November 2020 election process, Perls, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, ran for the office of Sandoval County Clerk in June. He lost, but remains actively engaged on election security issues. Perls also is the founder of N.M. Open Elections, a non-profit organization that works to improve voter turnout in elections.
He explained that the current voting process needs revision and requires new infrastructure to improve voter turnout and election security. He is convinced the country has not systematically improved election security from the processes and technologies used in the 2016 election.
The election process will remain at risk until governments designate election infrastructure as a piece of key national infrastructure, he warned. With its current governmental status, election infrastructure is easily accessible and highly unsecure.
For example, one can purchase a ballot machine on eBay. According to Perls, the Russians have in fact purchased U.S. ballot machines in order to reverse-engineer the designs and learn how to exploit weaknesses in the machines. U.S. election technology would be less available to foreign powers if it were designated key national infrastructure.
New Mexico ranks in the middle of state rankings in terms of voting security and infrastructure. Two primary forms of potential election corruption exist: retail election fraud and wholesale election fraud. Retail election fraud is a small and low-impact form of fraud in which an individual might steal an absentee ballot. Evidence shows that this kind of election tampering is rare, isolated and ineffective.
In contrast, wholesale election fraud poses a significant risk to the election process because it involves a coordinated effort to hack and undermine an entire election system. A hacker engaging in wholesale election fraud might try to hack into voter databases or tamper with an election vendor to gain information about voters or to influence the election results. Russia is the best-known actor that engages in wholesale election fraud.
The U.S. election process faces other risks as well. Perls expressed concern that only 13 states have adopted voting machines that leave a paper trail. These new machines create a paper receipt that records voting behavior. This “paper trail” enables authorities to run an audit on local election locations to guard against election fraud. Thirty-seven states have not adopted these new election machines, leaving them more susceptible to and less responsive to voter fraud.
Looking at the election process more broadly, Perls says that the country and individual states need to spend more money to update voting infrastructure and to reform the voting process. Perls has several recommendations for states and for the federal government to adopt in voting reform. First, all states should adopt the paper trail voting machines because the technology greatly strengthens the ability of governments to audit elections to check for voter fraud.
Second, governments need to invest in training their county clerks and civil servants in cybersecurity threats and in crisis-management. County clerks are responsible for running elections, so it is imperative that clerk offices become more educated about potential voting risks. Clerks should receive additional training in identifying cybersecurity threats and reviewing staff credentials to mitigate security risks and to ensure an effective response to cases of voter fraud, he said.
And county clerks must be trained in crisis management. In the case of voter fraud, clerks must be prepared to establish crisis centers to effectively investigate and address the situation.
Third, governments need to continue to work on minority voter engagement to improve voter turnouts and voting accessibility in minority communities.
Finally, Perls supports the adoption of all-mail ballot systems in which every registered voter is automatically mailed a ballot. This system allows for all voters to cast their votes by mail. This system has several advantages.
Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, voters would be able to cast their votes from the safety of their own homes. Importantly, a mail-in ballot system gives voters several days to submit their ballot. During this time, voters can research the candidates listed on the ballot and make informed decisions before casting their votes.
As a final benefit, Perls argues that all-mail ballot systems increase overall voter turnout: when Colorado switched to mail-in ballots, the state experienced a five percent increase in voter turnout.
Perls explains that there are some obstacles to adopting an all-mail ballot system, but voter security is not one of them. Evidence shows that all-mail ballot systems suffer from very little fraud. Another common concern is the belief that all-mail ballot systems disproportionately benefit one political party or cause over another. Again, research demonstrates that mail-in ballot systems do not preferentially benefit any one group.
But all-mail ballot systems do require expanded voting infrastructure and new technologies to make the process secure, efficient, and transparent. States adopting an all-mail ballot system must first update and vet their voter databases so that mail ballots are sent to the correct residents with their correct addresses. After verifying and updating voter databases, states must redesign their ballots to fit the mail format, and they must also develop the infrastructure to track mail ballots much as Amazon tracks package orders.
States will need to print a unique bar code on every ballot, and residents should be able to access an online system where they can track the location and status of their ballots.
Then there is the issue of developing “curing” processes. In a mail-in ballot format, residents should be alerted if their completed ballot is rejected. The government should then grant the voter the opportunity to “cure” the ballot for resubmission. This process requires that governments increase the number of voting staff so that residents can communicate with voter authorities.
Finally, Perls said, to verify the identity of voters, states must invest in signature verification software. This software is essential in the validation process for mail-in ballots. All of Perls’ suggested security and election reforms require funding. He estimates that $2 billion are required to update voter infrastructure across the country. In the stimulus bill passed by Congress this spring, only $700 million were devoted to updating the election process.
Looking at New Mexico specifically, the state has made strides in improving its voting infrastructure, but work remains to be done, Perls cautioned. New Mexico is one of only 13 states that have adopted paper trail voting machines, and he congratulated New Mexico on this achievement. Additionally, New Mexico’s Secretary of State has gone through crisis control training, but many clerks in the state have not received this training.
Regarding an all-mail ballot system, New Mexico has made important reforms to the voting system, but the state is not yet an all-mail ballot state. This past special session of the N.M. Legislature, legislators passed Senate Bill 4 that requires that county clerks send all registered voters an application to obtain a mail-in ballot. Although the state still does have an all-mail ballot system, this legislation is an important step in voting reform.
New Mexico’s Secretary of State has also done important work to update voter databases, but the state has not adopted a ballot tracking system or signature verification software.
Moving forward, Perls suggests that New Mexico look to Colorado as an example for election reform. Colorado runs an all-mail ballot system, and the state has adopted open primaries in which independents are permitted to vote in primary elections. These reforms have increased voter turnout. And Colorado, a “purple” state with strong tendencies for conservative and liberal politics, also demonstrates that these voting reforms are not partisan issues.