Secure and Transparent Elections: Looking Towards the Future

March 2021
Topics: Election Integrity, Policy, Social Behavior, Cybersecurity, Information Security
MITRE invited officials, including Secretaries of State Brad Raffensperger and Mac Warner, to meet with experts to discuss the events of 2020—and how to strengthen election integrity. Their vision of the future? Guardedly optimistic.
Ballot counting at an elections center in Georgia.

“Unprecedented.”

That word comes up often in describing the 2020 presidential election and the months that followed, leading up to the Capitol Hill insurrection on Jan. 6. 

Unprecedented to hold an election during a global pandemic. An unprecedented voter turnout of nearly 150 million people. And an unprecedented disinformation campaign that has effectively caused a large percentage of Americans to mistrust the results of the 2020 election.   

Yet, at MITRE’s Center for Data-Driven Policy and Center for Securing the Homeland (CSH) virtual conference, Ben Hovland, the chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said, “The 2020 election was unequivocally the best administered election that I've seen in my career…. [Election workers] put their personal health on the line in service of our democracy, and they did a great job, and they deserve our thanks and praise.” (Note, CSH is comprised of two federally funded research and development centers, or FFRDCs: Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute and the National Cybersecurity FFRDC.)

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who faced intense pressure during the election, also praised the hard work of the poll workers and the integrity of all 159 county election directors in his state. He outlined some of the processes and technologies his state used to ensure accurate election results.

“We hand-counted every single ballot, all five million,” he said. “And that did two things. It verified that the machines from Dominion did not flip the votes. So we put that to bed. But it also verified that President Trump did not carry the state of Georgia.” 

Hovland and Raffensperger spoke at “Secure and Transparent Elections: Looking Towards the Future.” MITRE’s Emily Frye moderated the conference, which included two secretaries of state, along with panelists from federal, state, industry, and academic organizations. Over 300 people attended online.

With a focus on the future, attendees concentrated on identifying best lessons for upcoming elections, including combatting disinformation and applying technology solutions where possible.

Supporting State Election Officials in Fighting Misinformation

According to Scott Bates, with the Connecticut Election Cybersecurity Taskforce, “I'd suggest [we’ve seen] this kind of challenge before as a nation, and as public servants—and that would be 9/11. That was a low-cost, high-impact tactic used by our enemies to undermine our confidence to disrupt our lives and our very institutions. [Now, as then] our mission, ultimately, is to secure and reassure. When you strip away all the strategies, that's what we're trying to do.” 

MITRE’s Marc Schneider noted that the public’s lack of understanding of the election process is one of the key challenges. Schneider emphasized that supporting state election officials with accurate information and data is key. “They are the decision makers.”

He outlined how the MITRE-developed SQUINT™ application is a way to crowdsource a collection of tips, similar to the “see something, say something” program operated by the Department of Homeland Security in the physical world.

Isabella Garcia-Camargo of the Election Integrity Partnership, Stanford Internet Observatory, reinforced the importance of helping state election officials deal with disinformation.

For instance, what if disinformation about the voting machines will be prevalent? In that case. Garcia-Camargo recommends preparing election officials across all levels with the facts so that they can offer an informed, consistent response.

The Role of Technology in Elections

As much as technologies such as the web and social media have empowered people to spread conspiracy theories, technology will certainly be part of the solution as well—starting with security.

Bob Kolasky, assistant director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said CISA has begun hiring 50 state, local, tribal territorial coordinators across the country to work on election security, among other issues.

“[This includes] making investments in upgrades, making sure that software and hardware patch in the latest versions. These advisers will be helping them do that.”

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner discussed how electronic voting could help those without easy access to in-person and mail-in voting. Among them: people with disabilities within the state as well as overseas voters such as military personnel.

He said that while the U.S. Constitution gives us all the right to vote, that’s meaningless if “you don’t have the ability to get out of bed.  [We must] use the technology we have in today’s world to enable those people the opportunity to vote.”  Warner’s office has been piloting such a program since 2018, and 1562 voters used the system in 2020, including 271 people with disabilities.

And Josh Benaloh, senior cryptographer, Microsoft Research, discussed existing technologies that allow people to confirm that their vote has been accurately counted and included in the final tally.

Guarded Optimism for the Future

Despite the many daunting challenges in 2020, the conference participants offered guarded optimism for the future.

“It is absolutely critical that this work continue [and that] our federal, state, and local governments provide ongoing and consistent funding to our election officials so that they can do their jobs,” said Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

And Amelia Powers-Gardner, Utah County election chief, offered a five-point summary of what it will take to achieve election success:

  1. Voter convenience
  2. Quick ballot counting
  3. Transparency
  4. Self-verification
  5. Security

During the conference, Frye announced a new whitepaper covering analysis of MITRE’s Election Security Lab, Data Analytics to Enhance Election Transparency.  Our  team analyzed eight battleground states’ election results and found no evidence of fraud, manipulation, or uncorrected error including of the Dominion voting machines, as summarized in Forbes

by Bill Eidson


Hear directly from the event’s participants, representing federal and state governments, academia, and industry. Watch the full recording.

Featured speakers:  

  • Brad Raffensperger, Georgia secretary of state
  • Mac Warner, West Virginia secretary of state
  • Ben Hovland, chairman, U.S. Election Assistance Commission
  • Bob Kolasky, assistant Director, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency
  • Emily Frye, director of cyber integration, MITRE

Panelists

  • Scott Bates, Connecticut Election Cybersecurity Task Force
  • Elizabeth Howard, Brennan Center’s Democracy Program
  • Isabella Garcia-Camargo, Election Integrity Partnership, Stanford Internet Observatory
  • Amelia Powers-Gardner, Utah County election chief
  • Josh Benaloh, senior cryptographer, Microsoft Research
  • Marc Schneider, Election Integrity Initiative, MITRE
  • Matthew Friedman, Judicial and Adjudicative Program, MITRE

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