Election officials knew for years that 2020 would be a major challenge, but, of course, they had no way of knowing just how much disruption they would have to cope with.
“Every major element of voting in almost every state was put under serious challenge,” says Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at M.I.T. who helps run the Stanford-M.I.T. Healthy Elections Project. “This was a profounder challenge [than even the 2000 elections], and that one that actually has the potential of leading to even bigger changes in how America does elections.”
To avoid any serious debacles on the administrative end, election insiders say, people across government offices, in the media and in private industry scrambled to meet new challenges.
Governors, lawmakers and even judges tweaked deadlines to make voting by mail easier. County officials scurried to print thousands more envelopes and mail ballots than they had anticipated, but also to get envelope openers and industrial ballot scanners to ease the counting process on Election Night. The U.S. Postal Service sent letter carriers every day to homes that weren’t getting any mail in the weeks leading up to the November election, to make sure they collected all of the mail in ballots. Young poll workers signed up to operate polling places, when it became apparent that older volunteers were opting out to protect themselves from COVID-19. Social media companies tasked representatives to meet with election officials to address concerns about posts spreading misinformation or disinformation.
The all-hands-on-deck approach succeeded in addressing most of the practical challenges election administrators were dealt.
But the ugly aftermath has largely obscured that work, and it could overshadow many of the lessons about how election administrators were able to pull off such a daunting feat in the first place.
The flurry of activity to rescue the 2020 elections from chaos, though, first came in the wake of the toxic 2016 election cycle. In that contest, Trump, a brash newcomer to the Republican Party, clashed with Democratic stalwart Hillary Clinton. Trump won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote.
While the candidates themselves slugged it out on the airwaves, though, foreign actors tried to sow division within the country, particularly by weaponizing social media. They spread blatant lies to audiences they cultivated to believe them – the original “fake news” – and then pit the groups against each other.
Meanwhile, Russian hackers scanned the voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois (but made no changes) and targeted voter registration states in more than a dozen other states, as well.
No votes were changed, but alarms started ringing.
In response, the federal government played a far bigger role in getting states ready for foreign interference and other cyber threats. In one of its last official acts, the Obama administration designated election systems as “critical infrastructure” that the Department of Homeland Security would try to protect from outside threats. State election officials lambasted the move at the time, worrying that the federal government would try to nationalize elections that had historically been run by state and local officials.
Their initial resistance softened, though, as they realized the scope of the malicious activity they were facing, and as federal agencies offered intelligence and assistance that state and local officials could not provide on their own. So, for example, homeland security experts would scan county websites and highlight vulnerabilities, then help the counties address those weaknesses. The interactions also helped state and local officials trust their federal counterparts, as did the fact that the Department of Homeland Security brought on a former Ohio election official, Matt Masterson, to help work with the states.
“We knew that this was not an attempt of the federal government to take over election administration,” says Patrick, of the Democracy Fund. “We learned that this was a situation where foreign adversaries [posed] very sophisticated threats. They were real and present and dangerous.”
The new focus, though, meant transformation in many election offices. Election officials went from being event planners to being cybersecurity warriors.
Many of those cybersecurity improvements were in place by the 2018 elections, but federal agencies kept in close touch with their state and local partners as the presidential election neared.
The heightened awareness about cybersecurity issues also helped state and local election officials better plan for other emergencies.
They participated in table-top exercises going through how different actors and agencies would respond if specific crises occurred, said Stewart, the MIT professor. That put state and local election officials in touch with private vendors, federal resources, as well as other state agencies, such as the National Guard, that they would normally not interact much with. “We saw in a lot of states that election officials are better equipped to reach out to other parts of state government in order to get some help,” he said.
Chris Krebs, a cybersecurity expert who once worked for Microsoft, joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2017 and, the next year, became the first head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). From that perch, he became a key player in the administration of the 2020 elections.
While Krebs was the public face of the federal cybersecurity effort, Stewart said, there were significant resources – perhaps thousands of people – in the intelligence community monitoring potential threats. “The degree of the involvement of the intelligence community was kept quiet, because nobody wanted to rile up President Trump about this,” Stewart says.
Another significant step CISA took was to convene two working groups: one for government agencies and another for election industry participants.
When the coronavirus started spreading across the country last year, those two bodies became crucial clearinghouses of information as everyone in the election world started ripping up their old plans and writing new ones for pulling off an election in a pandemic. They produced
a series of how-to guides
that election administrators around the country used to take on the new challenges.
“They [CISA] were seen as a collaborative partner to help in this new threat to our democracy, which was: How do we secure our systems in a global pandemic?” Patrick says. “Some would say they really shouldn’t have had anything to do with it. But many of these states and local jurisdictions had people working from home. They need to make sure that their computer system is secure when people are telecommuting.”
“Their value,” she adds, “was far greater than anyone would have thought.”
When Trump disputed the outcome of the election, Krebs and CISA would emerge as key players again.
An Election Like No Other
The election season got off to a rocky start. The much-anticipated Iowa Democratic Caucus – an event organized by the state party, not its election officials – devolved into confusion, in part because of an app that didn’t work as planned. Three days after the contest, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg was announced as the winner, squeaking past U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The first wave of the coronavirus outbreak hit just as many states were gearing up for their own primary contests. Many governors and other officials delayed their primaries, in the hopes that the crisis would pass in the interim. But others went ahead, with mixed results. When Wisconsin held its contest, the city of Milwaukee had only five polling places open because of a shortage of poll workers.
For many states, the primaries ended up being a sort of shakedown cruise for the general election in November. They learned from those contests – and from other states – to prepare for the fall contests.
Even without coronavirus, Stewart, the MIT professor, points out, the November elections would have been a logistical challenge. Turnout nationally was 66 percent
of the voting-eligible population, the highest it had been in 120 years. Even with the increased turnout, lines at polling places were longer than they had been in 2016, but were similar to those in 2012.
Much of that, of course, was thanks to the surge in mail-in voting. Twice as many people voted by mail in 2020 as four years before, but in some jurisdictions, the number of mailed ballots increased by a factor of 10, Stewart said.
Election administrators worried that the influx of mail voting would lead to more spoiled ballots, because the process of filling out the ballots is more complicated than voting in person and there are no poll workers standing by to answer questions. Officials also were concerned that many ballots would come in too late to be counted, if voters waited until the last minute to drop their ballots in the mail. But neither of those became major issues, Stewart says, because word got out to voters about those issues.
“I think election officials have a lot to take credit for there,” he says. “I also think that voters themselves stepped up. Citizen groups and a lot of other people stepped up to get the message out about how to vote by mail properly and securely.”
Administrators also had to adjust their in-person voting plans, he noted. Preliminary evidence shows that fewer polling places were held in churches and schools last year, and more of them were held in civic centers or other government buildings.
One thing that eased the transition was an influx of money, both from government and private sources, says Patrick of the Democracy Fund. The federal CARES Act, the coronavirus relief package Congress passed in March, included millions of dollars to help offset the increased costs of administering elections last year. Private foundations also chipped in.
“There are election officials who told me, ‘I finally got to run the election I always wanted to run, because I was able to send out mailers to my voters about information that they needed. And I could never afford to do that before,’” Patrick says. It wasn’t just mailers, either. It was new equipment or extra space to store mail ballots or other longstanding needs. “All of these things really are part of what lent themselves to the success of the election.”
Stewart, from MIT, says initial estimates show that the 2020 election may have cost two or three times as much as a normal presidential election.
“What 2000 did was it created a focus on ‘magic bullet’ solutions the problems that were unearthed,” he says. “The voting machines failed, so we needed new voting machines. There were problems with voter registration, so we needed new voter registration systems. There were just a couple of things that were high-profile that largely involved buying new gadgets or new systems.
This election cycle, though, was far different, he says.
“In 2020, the big thing was managing change. There was no one magic bullet,” Stewart explains. There were “huge changes in standard operating procedures and procurement and personnel… Management can be really, really messy.”
President Trump’s relentless efforts to overturn the election results led him to pressure state legislators and the Georgia secretary of state to override the popular vote in their state. The president and his team disparaged election officials, equipment manufacturers, the media and a litany of imagined enemies.
Krebs, the head of CISA, created a “rumor control” website
to debunk false information about the election, much of it peddled by the president, his legal team or his supporters. When one of Trump’s lawyers suggested that a computer program had switched votes from Trump to Biden, Krebs swatted it down on Twitter. He linked to a letter
by cybersecurity experts and wrote
, “On allegations that election systems were manipulated, 59 election security experts all agree, ‘in every case of which we are aware, these claims either have been unsubstantiated or are technically incoherent.’” Trump disputed Krebs’ claim and fired the cybersecurity expert via Twitter.
Trump’s efforts to rally supporters to his side, of course, led to a mob of his supporters violently storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. They wanted to prevent the formal counting of state electoral votes that solidified Biden’s win, but Congress ratified Biden’s victory anyway. Trump’s calls for insurrection ultimately led to his second impeachment by the U.S. House.
While the country’s attention focused on the tumult in the nation’s capital, Trump’s constant denigration of the electoral process has led to sinister results elsewhere, too.
In late December, the FBI reported
that Iranian “cyber actors” created a website called “Enemies of the People” that contained death threats aimed at election officials. Krebs, FBI Director Christopher Wray, along with the governors of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan all appeared in various iterations of the site, according to The Washington Post
. Other people who have been involved in election administration were included as well.
Their “images, home addresses and other personal information were posted” on the site and “crosshairs were superimposed over the photos,” the Post reported
The FBI said the site showed that foreign actors are still trying to shake confidence in the U.S. government. “The post-election creation of the Enemies of the People website demonstrates an ongoing Iranian intent to create divisions and mistrust in the United States and undermine public confidence in the U.S. electoral process,” the agency wrote.