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Democracy Works

135 EpisodesProduced by Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy/The Democracy GroupWebsite

Examining what it means to live in a democracy


How states are working to keep your vote safe

Elections are the bedrock of any democracy. Without confidence in the process or the results, confidence in democracy itself is vulnerable. With the primary season underway and the general election just a few months away, conversations about election security are starting to enter the public conscience. We saw this firsthand in Iowa last week as conspiracy theories about results hacking swirled despite no evidence of malicious interference in caucus results.

Since 2016, states have taken measures to add paper trails, intrusion detection, audit systems, and other measures to safeguard the voting records from voting interference. However, elections are conducted county by county, which means resources are spread thin, and large-scale efforts can be difficult to coordinate. Adding this additional layer of security might also mean longer wait times at the polls on Election Day at a time when turnout is already expected to be high.

Our guest this week is Bill Theobald, a senior writer at The Fulcrum, a news site devoted to covering democracy-related issues. He covers election security and frequently talks with both election officials and security experts about how they are working together to safeguard the voting process and ensure a process the public can trust.

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Additional Information

The Fulcrum’s story on election security in swing states

Related Episodes

Protecting democracy from foreign interferance 

What should voting look like in the 21st century?

Episode Credits

This episode was engineered by Democracy Works host Jenna Spinelle, edited by WPSU’s Chris Kugler, and reviewed by WPSU News Director Emily Reddy. Additional support from Democracy Works interns Nicole Gresen and Stephanie Krane.

Interview Highlights [8:20] What do we know about the extent of hacking of voting in the 2016 election?

I believe the public thinks that a lot more happen than really did happen. I think it was so shocking that somebody tried to do this, that the fact that they were unsuccessful sort of gets lost. There are really only two things that we know about in which they actually broke into some particular system. One is the Illinois voter registration rolls and apparently they downloaded some names of people who are registered to vote. Nothing was changed and also there was some attempts and maybe success to break into some election offices, computers in Florida, but there’s not entirely clear what they actually accomplished. And the bottom line is no votes were changed. No voter names were taken off or added to the voting rolls. Again, I think people were so outraged and concerned about it that they think that things were a lot worse than they were.

[10:45] What are states doing to make this year’s elections more secure?

They are implementing systems that create a paper record of some sort. When you cast your ballot, you have a piece of paper and they have a piece of paper that shows what you intended to do with your vote. And that way they can check it against what the actual results are and make sure that there wasn’t some problem in the way it was counted. They’re also adding audits, which allows them to go back and actually check the results versus the ballots themselves.

[20:44] Are there specific states leading the charge for reform?

The one that I hear the most about is Colorado and the reason for that is that they went to paper ballots or a ballot system or voting system that creates a paper record. And they were one of the first to mandate these risk limited audits after every election. And I think that they’re considered to have a pretty well run operation and a uniformity of belief and a bipartisan support for some of these things. I think the places where this happens where it’s going well are where there’s an agreement that no matter what your political outlook is or what candidate you’re going to vote for or who you support, that we have to come together and make sure that these systems are secure.

[24:05] Has election security managed to stay above the partisan fray?

I guess you could say that there’s probably politics and partisan politics these days in almost anything. But it’s among the least partisan of the issues and if anything it’s because of the great level of concern that’s out there. I think there is certainly different policy positions on how to address it, whether to have a consistent funding mechanism from the federal government or whether that should be something that’s left more to the states and the local governments. So one of the things that Republicans as part of their just general philosophy is that they have a concern about federal control of local elections in that they believe that the decision-making should be left at the local level.

[25:55] What changes can voters expect on Election Day?

I think one of the things that’s not getting a lot of attention now it’s going to continue to emerge as an issue is that with the additional steps and concerns about security, there’s real and with a huge turnout that’s now sort of being expected you’re going to have a combination of lot of people and longer process, which means a longer wait time to vote if you actually voting on Election Day.

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