Election Security: How to make sure your vote counts

By Richard Pedersen

Since evidence of Russian intervention in the 2016 election first came to light, election security experts and local officials have repeatedly raised the alarm regarding the vulnerability of the American electoral system. Public statements from such experts have primarily focused on threats of foreign interference. However, in recent weeks President Trump’s claims regarding widespread voter fraud have shifted the conversation towards domestic threats to electoral integrity.

Given the contentious nature of this election and the extenuating circumstances under which it is occurring, the SAIS Observer has put together a guide for students looking for ways to ensure their vote is counted correctly.

What’s at risk?

In recent years, the character of public discourse has politicized the risk and reality of foreign interference in American elections. However, the U.S. government has made clear that foreign actors are attempting to interfere in the election. 

Department of Justice investigations into the scale and character of Russia’s interference in 2016 resulted in at least 34 individuals’ indictments, most with ties to Russian security services.

Disinformation efforts continue to this day. In August, Director William Evanina of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center confirmed that Russia, China, and Iran have continued to spread disinformation in an attempt to influence the 2020 election. Regarding Russia in particular, Director Evanina stated that Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an ‘anti-Russia establishment.’”

Adding to these foreign threats is the growing fear of domestic attempts to undermine the democratic system among American voters. The President himself has reiterated these fears, suggesting that the Democratic Party is purposefully ignoring large-scale mail-in voter fraud. 

Chief among President Trump’s claims are his assertions that mail-in ballots are being discarded, sold, or altered to benefit his opponent. Despite these claims, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice demonstrated that voter fraud in the United States has historically been limited to a small number of cases. Meanwhile, President Trump’s more recent claims regarding mail-in ballots have been debunked repeatedly by sources such as the Associated Press.

This attempt to discredit mail-in voting has extended into direct efforts to disrupt both mail-in and in-person voting. In August, for instance, President Trump refused to provide federal funding for the USPS to conduct mail-in voting, stating, “they need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.”  During the first presidential debate, President Trump called on his supporters to monitor polling places, which is prohibited by law and originates from race-based voter intimidation tactics in the antebellum South.

Finally, when asked by a reporter if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, “win, lose, or draw,” President Trump refused, stating, “Well, we’ll have to see what happens… Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very – you’ll have a very peaceful – there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”

Making sure your vote counts

The 2020 election seems set to be one of the more heated elections in recent history, coinciding with a global pandemic and nationwide civil rights movements. The threats of external or internal interference in the electoral system also contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety regarding the electoral process’s sanctity. With that in mind, SAIS students can ensure they are equipped to ensure their votes are counted correctly and promptly.

First, spend just a few minutes over the next day reading about your voting rights and your local electoral rules. The American Civil Liberties Union has a useful primer on what voting rights you as an American citizen are entitled to. Meanwhile, many voting guides exist for Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C., or anywhere else you may currently reside.

Second, voting in-person, particularly for the young and healthy, remains an option in most districts. If possible, given health status, age, and availability of proper PPE, in-person voting remains the easiest way to guarantee a vote is counted rapidly once cast.

However, in-person voting is not immune to complications, and students looking to vote in-person should be prepared to deal with transportation difficulties and delays at polling places.

Students without personal vehicles should know of multiple methods of reaching polling places if some portion of public transit faces COVID-related disruption. If transportation is an issue, or if students are worried about getting friends, family, or colleagues to the polls, organizations, such as Carpool Vote, also allow voters to organize carpooling services ahead of time.

Third, transportation delays, long lines at polling places, or inconvenient work schedules may leave students in a rush to reach designated polling places. If that occurs, students should know two things: any voter in line at their assigned polling place by the time the polls close has a legal right to cast a vote. Even those who arrive after a polling place closes can still cast a provisional ballot in many districts. These provisional ballots are counted approximately a week after the election but can offer voters a last-ditch opportunity to get their vote in.

Finally, for those who cannot vote in person, whether because they will be out of state, cannot risk exposure to COVID-19, or simply do not want to vote in person, mail-in voting is an option mail-in voting rules vary widely by jurisdiction. Furthermore, the administration’s attempts to slow mail-in voting may mean these votes are not received or counted until several days after Election Day. 

If you do plan on mailing in a ballot, do so as soon as possible to avoid any potential delays. You can track the status of your mailed ballot in most states using the resources listed here. In many jurisdictions, including Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C., mail-in ballots can also be submitted in person through ballot drop-off boxes either before or on election day. More information on these drop-off boxes can be found here, as well as through your local election office.

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