Examining the 2020 U.S. Election with David Becker

Elections distrust is a threat U.S. democracy 

Expert advice: Get prepared and trust the process

The greatest threat to the 2020 U.S. Presidential election is not hacking, but Americans’ lack of confidence that the election will be legitimate, according to elections expert David Becker.

This month, Becker presented to the PCI Community, sharing insights into election security and threats to the 2020 election. His nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research is working on improving voter registration, election cybersecurity, and today, holding safe and secure elections during a nationwide pandemic.

“We work with election officials across the political spectrum, across the country, to improve how elections are run,” Becker said.

Becker’s message for Americans headed into the 2020 election is threefold: voter fraud is low and election security is improving, but the real threat — a growing mistrust in U.S. election outcomes — remains.

“It’s highly unlikely the Russians and others are trying to infiltrate our systems in an undetected way to change election results,” Becker said. “What we know they’re trying to do is to delegitimize our elections and to reduce our confidence in our elections.” 

Although the topic has gained steam in national conversation, Becker said voter fraud related to mail-in ballots is extremely rare, with few cases out of hundreds of millions of ballots in an election. And in-person voting is getting more secure, too, as states increasingly rely on machines that use paper ballots. 

“There is no real increase in the threat of voter fraud,” Becker said. “It’s not zero, but it’s very close to zero.”

“It's highly unlikely the Russians and others are trying to infiltrate our systems in an undetected way to change election results. What we know they’re trying to do is to delegitimize our elections and to reduce our confidence in our elections.” 

—David Becker
david becker smiling

So here’s where Becker gets worried, and where voters should too: Anyone looking to hack U.S. elections isn’t focused on actually changing votes or outcomes, but rather on chipping away at Americans’ confidence in their voting systems and sowing political discord.

“Our adversaries are still attacking not only our election infrastructure but the minds of the American voters in an attempt to delegitimize democracy writ large and specifically to reduce voter confidence in the United States of America,” Becker said. “I don’t think there is any question that to date, they’ve been enormously successful. It’s one of the great foreign policy coups of certainly the 21st century, and probably the last 100 or 200 years.”

Their strategy, Becker said, is effective because it gets Americans to turn against each other and creates doubt that outcomes they oppose are legitimate. He notes that even after the 2000 election, faith in democracy and U.S. voting systems remained. But many Americans still think the 2016 election was compromised despite extensive investigation — Becker called it “the single most investigated election in history” — that revealed zero evidence of any votes changed. 

“The American people have lost confidence in elections overall,” Becker said.

And the problem is only going to get worse. Attackers are working hard to get out the word that U.S. elections aren’t to be trusted and are probing election infrastructure, not to change votes, but to create panic and mistrust. Becker said he expects messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic will have an effect too.

Becker can offer one piece of advice for every U.S. voter going into November. Get prepared. Now is the time to check your voter registration status and decide if you want to vote by mail or in person. If you choose to vote by mail, request your ballot early and if possible, return it in person to a voting place or dropoff slot, not by mail. If you choose to vote in person, try to vote early to alleviate stress on resources on Election Day. And be patient. Results will come eventually, and don’t distrust the process if votes are delayed — it means election officials are doing their jobs.

“Just like we have to make a plan for the grocery store now … everyone is going to need to make a plan for voting much earlier than they have before,” Becker said.

A deeper look into election security

Becker said that while digital voting technology isn’t totally secure, the threat of hacking from foreign adversaries is low, simply because of the massive numbers of elections, each being held individually with vastly different technology.

“I feel very confident in the overall security of our elections,” Becker said.

Entirely digital voting machines, which around a quarter of 2016 voters used, are the most insecure because there is no paper record, according to Becker. But states are now moving toward using voting machines with paper ballots, which are much more secure because they produce a physical ballot that is verifiable by the voter, are scannable, and can be audited.

“The really good news is that in 2020, about 90 to 95 percent of all voters are going to be voting on paper ballots,” Becker said. “Every single battleground state is paper ballots.”

In response to concerns about increased mail-in voting this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Becker explained that mail-in ballots have individualized barcodes and personal information, such as a signature, making catching fraudulent ones fairly straightforward. He also noted that the history of mail-in voting dates back to at least the Civil War, and that many states, including Washington and Colorado, already do secure universal mail voting. Becker said the idea of fraudulent mail-in voting en masse is extremely unlikely because of the highly specialized and individualized ballots for each voting area, which must match up with actual voting records.

“It would be discovered immediately,” Becker said. “It would have virtually no effect. There is no way that these ballots would be confused with actual ballots sent out.”

So why doesn’t every state have universal mail-in voting? Moving to mail ballots takes time, Becker said, and during a Presidential election, when many voters are first-time or inexperienced, mail ballots can be risky. There are many steps of the process that could go wrong, from filling out the ballot incorrectly to missing the request or submittal windows, not to mention the many mistakes people make on the ballot itself that could render it invalid. 

“Mail voting is voting without a safety net,” Becker said.

The one place where infiltration has happened recently is in voter registration, but Becker said that technology is improving, too. Prior to the 2016 election, when Russians hacked the Illinois voter registration database, they accessed data slowly over weeks to probe security systems. Once they amped up the attack, election officials discovered it immediately.

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