COVID-19, The Election and Cyber Interference: What to Know

Although any election faces challenges, the 2020 presidential election in the United States enters uncharted waters due to COVID-19 and national shutdown and restrictions around gatherings and settings where people can congregate, such as polling locations. Here’s what to know about COVID-19 and voting, and the cyberthreats surrounding the 2020 election.

October 21, 2020Author: Emily Glazier, Henry Kenyon

Voting During COVID-19

The 2020 Presidential Election is mere weeks away, and due to COVID-19, 40 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia are offering online registration for voting for the election. Every state offers an alternative way to vote besides going to a physical polling station, such as by mailing your ballot in directly. Many serious questions about election integrity and security have been raised, so here’s what to know about voting in 2020.

What You Should Know

There are many important things to consider when voting in the 2020 election. Making sure you are registered to vote in your preferred method, and voting on time is crucial. Although Election Day may not be until November 3, you may need to cast your ballot and send it to the proper location prior to Election Day. It is important to note that there is a difference between absentee voting and mail-in voting. Absentee voting is generally for out-of-state college students, those with an excuse not to vote in person, or those outside of the state/territory they vote in.

For example, if you are a Connecticut resident living in Vermont for college, you need an absentee ballot. A mail-in ballot is a ballot that is sent to you, filled out by you, and sent back, eliminating in person contact. In Vermont, your ballot needs to be received by Election Day (November 3, 2020), but in some states, they must be received early. Certain states also have deadlines to register to vote, which are quickly approaching. For example, in Vermont, there is no deadline to register to vote, however, in New York, you must register to vote by October 9.

Voter Registration Deadlines

State postal voting rules for the 2020 US election

It is also important to fact-check and know what media you are consuming. This is especially important for information found online. On social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, users can post and spread information, sometimes false, without any truth or fact-checking behind it. Some social media platforms, such as Instagram, have implemented resources below political posts to find correct, neutral information to allow the user a simple way to check facts. Other ways to independently verify the information you consume include researching via neutral information platforms such as FactCheck. You can also check your state's voting regulations and do your part in registering to vote through Vote411 or your county's webpage.

Cyberthreats and the Election

Many people are choosing to vote via mail in the election to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Concerns about how the voting process have been raised, such as if online devices used for voting can be compromised, leading to privacy issues, and system security issues, including such as malware or hackers entering the systems and interfering with the election process. There may be confusion on why there are cybersecurity threats when mail-in ballots are physical paper forms. This is due to the fact that many aspects of voting, including identification, verification, and counting, is done online via the internet. There is a history of hackers introducing ransomware to different voting platforms. The concern with ransomware is that it could be used to lock the voter registration databases from certain states, and only release it after a ransom is granted. This is concerning, since without the voter registration databases, state election officials have no ability to ensure someone is eligible to vote, or voting in the correct area. Secondly, there are concerns about mail-in ballots being fraudulent or discarded. Some fear that unauthorized voters will use mail-in ballots to fraudulently send in votes on behalf of others, or throw away ballots before reaching the individual. However, according to data from the Electronic Registration Information Center, in 2016 and 2018, there were only 0.0025% out of 14 million mail-in votes that were either double-counted or sent in for someone that was deceased, or otherwise fraudulent votes. Thus, the risk of fraudulent mail-in voting is historically low, past upon the last two elections. Although these concerns have existed in prior elections, they have been exacerbated by changes due to COVID-19.

True Information on Voting in 2020

How will voting be impacted this year due to COVID-19? According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, voting may be delayed, but will not be prevented. The Internet Crime Complaint Center also reports that there are no known cybersecurity incidents or issues preventing Americans from casting a ballot, however, there are other issues that can impact fair voting.

For example, civilians are threatening to monitor, or otherwise guard the polling stations, which causes issues and threats related to fair voting.

It is extremely important to use your vote to voice your opinion on current issues in America, despite the situations and changes surrounding COVID-19. The United States Postal Service (USPS), the organization that facilitates mail-in ballots, is confident that ballots will be safe. It is important to listen to local Boards of Elections, which vary by state and county, and other reliable resources like the United States Postal Services.

Reliable Statistics

  • According to The Heritage Foundation, only 1,298 proven cases of voter fraud occurred out of the almost 254 million ballots cast between 2016 and 2018.

  • The Truth About Voter Fraud, published by the Brennan Center, reports that incident rates have been found between 0.0003% and 0.0025%.

  • In 2017, the Brennan Center revised these numbers to 0.00004% and 0.0009%

  • The Truth About Voter Fraud also states that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

  • The Washington Post published a study that found 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast

Despite the low rates of voting fraud, there are, of course, still cases where mail-in votes can be fraudulent or fake, but there are effective provisions supported by BBC that can prevent such occurrences. For example, authorities can and do check ballots with the voters' registered addresses and require signatures on envelopes. Additionally, many states compare signatures on the ballot with the registered signatures of their constituents and implement witness or notarized signatures during elections.

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