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The 2022 midterms are here. What did Pennsylvania learn about election security from 2020?

Election officials and disinformation experts on a recent Pitt Cyber panel agreed that although no system is perfect, the current system is transparent and secure. That lesson is hard won, though.

Pitt Cyber election security panelists. (Screenshot)
Of all the things that made 2020 memorable, Americans will recall that it wasn’t just the candidates nor the issues that were politicized. It was the voting process, too — and in the end, thanks to misinformation, the election results.

Even as recently as this summer, one insurrection and a score of public hearings later, as many as 70% of Republicans believe the presidential election was stolen, according to polls collected by the Poynter Institute.

With the 2022 midterm elections just weeks away, the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security — aka Pitt Cyber — held a virtual panel discussion and invited a who’s who of election officials and academics. They explained how the election process is kept secure, what’s been learned from 2020, and what to expect this November.

Leigh Chapman, acting secretary of the Commonwealth, first cautioned anyone tuning in that more likely than not, all the election results might not come in at once. But don’t panic: As some voters are still opting to vote by mail and counties cannot open and or scan mail-in ballots earlier than 7 a.m., Chapman explained the delay will mean elections workers are being thorough and handling the ballots appropriately, and don’t indicate any nefarious behaviors.

“It’s always going to take some time,” Chapman said. “We’re not like Florida, unfortunately — we aren’t going to be able to call an election the day of the election. So it’s important that we’re setting these expectations. It’s the process playing out that we need to ensure that every eligible vote is counted and that’s what’s happening.”

Intimidation of election officials

Al Schmidt, now president and CEO of the nonpartisan civic advocacy group Committee of Seventy, learned firsthand how quickly things can escalate in November 2020. National eyes were on Philadelphia while he was serving as the only Republican on the board overseeing the city’s elections, and Schmidt was thrust into the national spotlight when former President Donald Trump accused him of being “used big time by the Fake News Media.”

As his fellow panelists would point out, only between 10 and 15% of mail-in ballots cast in Pennsylvania were estimated to have been cast in Philadelphia. Still, that mattered little to the people who’d spend months threatening not only Schmidt, but his family.

“In the lead up to the election, we began receiving very general threats, ‘like corrupt election officials in Philly are gonna get what’s coming to them’ [and] ‘you’re what the Second Amendment is for,’” Schmidt said. “Unfortunately, in my case, after the former president tweeted at me by name, it unleashed a whole torrent of very specific and very graphic threats, primarily targeting my three little kids. And the whole point of that is to coerce, and to intimidate.”

Some of the vitriol has led to some turnover in the Pennsylvania Department of State. Chapman recalled that since 2020, 50 election directors have vacated their positions. For some this was due to planned retirements; for others however, leaving was due to the threats election officials were receiving. Chapman cited this as a reason the department should give them support before and after the election.

A paper trail for increased election security

Contrary to what some feared, Schmidt describes the election of 2020 as one of the most secure elections in history. He attributed the security to counties switching over from a system where there was no paper ballot record to one where every ballot in person or via the mail was confirmed before it was counted as a vote. Many of the changes to election procedures that took place prior to the election can be attributed to Act 77, a law passed in 2019 that reformed the Commonwealth’s election process for the first time in decades. It allowed for “no excuse” mail-in voting, and gave additional time to submit mail-in ballots and to register.

When outlining the steps taken not only to audit the votes post-election, but ensure security in real time, Schmidt admitted that prior to the 2020 election he wasn’t thrilled about some of the changes that happened prior to November. Now, looking back, he said he realizes it was for the best amid rampant suspicion and misinformation.

“I went into it kicking and screaming with all these big changes, a lot of other counties did, but the Department of State was right” about prioritizing an election’s paper trail, Schmidt said. “It was a heavy lift for the counties but thank god we did it because I can’t imagine the misinformation that we would be seeing now, if we did not have a paper ballot record of every vote that was cast in the 2020 election as evidence. And the truth only gets you so far. We’re still facing a lot of distrust about elections.”

Fighting disinformation with information

In addition to ensuring that there are strict procedures in place to preserve transparency and accuracy, another area of focus has been attempting to combat misinformation by getting out ahead of it. Laura Putnam, professor of history and member of the Pitt Disinformation Lab team, explained that due to how quickly misinformation can spread, it can be more effective to try to debunk conspiracy theories before they pick up traction.

“It’s a systemic problem,” Putnam said. “Similarly, we all have a responsibility and role to play in strengthening our civic infrastructure that gets healthy, trustworthy information to people and helps people be able to trust trustworthy local sources.”

Although both Putnam and Schmidt acknowledged that dealing with individuals who believe in election conspiracy theories can be frustrating, it’s better in the long run to resist the urge to be dismissive, they said.

And while the panelists differed in backgrounds and political affiliation, they agreed that although there’s always room for improvement, officials were doing everything in their power to ensure that elections were secure. Voting methods could change in the future, for the moment however, the powers that be feel that going back to basics and auditing after the fact prevents outside interference and impropriety.

“I don’t know how elections could be more secure than having at the end of the day human readable ink on paper names of the candidates selected by the voter, that the voter verified, that are counted, and manually counted in not one but two audits after every election,” Schmidt said. “That may be a failure of imagination, but I don’t know how it gets more reliable than that.”

The election is scheduled for Nov. 8. Find guidance on how to register and cast your ballot in Pennsylvania here, and watch the full recording of the panel here.

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: University of Pittsburgh / Committee of Seventy / State of Pennsylvania
Series: Tech + Government Month 2022

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