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Is your vote safe?: The critical question in a democracy

In our bitterly and evenly divided country, close elections have become the norm: from the 2016 presidential election, which was decided by a handful of votes in a few states, to the 2018 vote for state rep, won by Maria Horn over Brian Ohler by 65 votes.

The same can be expected in the 2020 election, and so we need to pay attention not just to the outcome of elections but to their security, fairness and technology. 

Most of us know that our Registrars of Voters are responsible for maintaining an accurate list of voters. They conduct all elections and appoint a Moderator, who must be certified and trained by the Secretary of the State. I talked with Cornwall’s Registrars of Voters Jayne Ridgway and Cara Weigold about their important job.

“We have to be certified and undergo 22 hours of training plus attend conferences held by the Secretary of the State, most recently on cybersecurity.

“After you slide your ballot into the optical scanner, the machine will read it and spit out a report at the end of the night. It keeps the paper ballots, which are removed to a secure bag in the vault. Results are totally offline. We like our system because it’s electronic but has a paper trail that can be audited.

“On election night we send results three different ways: via a state monitored web program, fax and report by the Town Clerk. There is always a chance of hacking, but more difficult with three different forms of reporting.”

We talked about early voting. Connecticut is one of only 11 states that do not permit it. “It will mean more work, but we can handle it.” If you thought of this as a non-partisan move to make voting easier, you would be wrong. A resolution to allow it did not pass the state Senate along party lines. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said: “It’s shameful that only one Republican senator was willing to put the interest of voters ahead of misguided partisan advantage.”

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee recently concluded that Russia targeted all 50 states in 2016 and was in a position to delete or change voter data in a few. We also know that electronic voting machines are easily hacked, even the offline ones used in Cornwall. The safest and simplest voting method is the paper ballot. So, yes, your vote in Cornwall is safe; it’s in that secure bag in our vault. (It’s probably safe anywhere in Connecticut; all our towns use the same machines. They were purchased some years ago by the Secretary of the State’s office using a federal grant.)

An election security bill giving $600 million to states for improved security and requiring backup paper ballots recently passed the U.S. House but was blocked by Senate Leader Mitch McConnell until recently, when after being derided as “Moscow Mitch,” he allowed consideration of a bill allocating $250 million. Other details such as backup systems are being negotiated but have largely been blocked by Republicans.

Election administrators like Ridgway and Weigold play a crucial role in our democracy. They must conduct elections so that losing candidates accept the fact that they lost fairly.

 

If these concerns seem overwrought, think about this: 19 years ago George W. Bush lost the popular vote by a half million votes, but he was elected because he won Florida (after a recount) by 537 votes, giving him one electoral vote more than needed. Al Gore eventually accepted the results. If Trump lost a similar election, would he accept it? In the opinion of many, notably the U.S. Speaker of the House, Trump would try to remain in office. Trump’s communications director hotly denied this, but can you picture the egomaniac in the White House graciously conceding defeat in a close election? Neither can I.  What then? 

 

Ed Ferman lives in Cornwall, where he is a long-time editor of the Cornwall Chronicle. A substantially different version of this article recently appeared in the Cornwall Chronicle.