Election security can call to mind images of cybersecurity and hacked emails. But when it comes to protecting the vote, it’s just as top-of-mind comes down to protect paper ballots.
That was especially true in 2020, as a new system of absentee voting during the pandemic had officials changing plans. One addition offered a way to submit ballots that didn’t require showing up in person or sending them through a challenged postal service.
“A major part of the project was the use of ballot dropboxes instead of trying to rely 100% on USPS, and it turned out those dropboxes were a major factor in the success of our election, said David Garreis, deputy director of the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections. “More people used those than the USPS mail system to return ballots.”
But this required some extra safeguards. For one: state law required 24/7 security at the dropboxes for the 45 days that led up to the general election extra safeguards in place to make sure there was no tampering.
With about 30 days to put the system in place this spring, Garreis had to move quickly. The first move was to consider how to staff people. But after finding that the police department would’ve had to use overtime, he went in search of other options.
So Anne Arundel County decided to look into a tech-based approach. Officials reached out to Orem, Utah-based LiveView Technologies, which makes cameras that send streaming video to a cloud-based platform, allowing for continuous monitoring of certain sites. The company’s systems are used for a number of use cases, but this was the first for an election.
Anne Arundel County tried out the system at eight sites during the primary. Convinced of its effectiveness, Garreis decided to use the system to monitor 32 dropboxes, most of which were located at schools, during the general election.
In the end, Garreis said there were no incidents. And he estimates that the cost of $110,000 that was covered through a federal grant was about $700,000 cheaper than what the would’ve had to spend otherwise.
“It was a cost-effective solution in comparison to doing something in person with logistical pluses that made it more appealing than trying to do a live security solution in the midst of a pandemic,” he said.
Of course, there’s always a chance that adding surveillance technology could lead to uneasiness from the public. But since these systems are hard to miss, officials think they offer a deterrent. The solar-powered camera systems are attached to 15-foot pole, with a blue light that tends to make itself known. LiveView set up the system to broadcast an announcement that informed folks there were cameras onsite, spelled out the hours for the dropboxes and advised about social distancing regulations.
Asked if the county lost anything by switching away from a manned approach, Garreis said, “in my opinion we actually gained quite a bit because if you had an incident at a a vote center or somebody tried to tamper with ballot boxes, you have a record that you can always go back to and review,” he said.
LiveView didn’t plan to apply its technology to elections. But like so much in 2020, the world dictated other plans.
“We felt as a company that it was part of our civic duty especially a year like this year where we can provide a service that makes a difference,” said David Studdert, the company’s chief sales and marketing officer.
Garreis thinks dropboxes are likely to remain a part of elections going forward. So, too, might security systems. Turns out we don’t just need livestreaming of vote counting to ensure election integrity.
“I think in years to come you’re going to see a lot more of this type of technology,” Studdert said.-30-