A panel of experts on election security hosted a conversation on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. Their goal was to provide an update on how election security had been updated or improved since the 2020 election.
But really, their hope was to not let history repeat itself.
The four spoke about what needs to be done to continue safeguarding elections in 2022 and beyond as part of the National Task Force On Election Crises.
The question of whether 2022 will be better off than the rocky 2020 election period remains to be seen, but panelists discussed a number of positive issues, as well as a range of concerns: from disinformation by Russia and China to chain-of-custody issues regarding ballots.
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told the group that Jan. 6, 2021 ,was more profound than the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He said fighting al-Qaeda was a terrorist threat from an outside country, while the Jan. 6 insurrection was a coordinated effort from within the country, and in some cases, with the support of elected officials.
“We have come to understand Jan. 6 as part of global movement toward authoritarianism,” Chertoff said.
Like 9/11, there were two key similarities: There was insufficient information being shared about the event with different government agencies, Chertoff said, and there was a lack of understanding the potential for violence.
Amber McReynolds, chief executive of the National Vote at Home and member of the U.S. Postal Service’s Board of Governors, said that while some states, like Georgia and Montana, took steps to make voting more difficult, other states expanded the voting rights: Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada and Vermont, according to the task force’s July 2021 report.
“Kentucky, for example, stands out as an example of productive, bipartisan lawmaking,” the report said. “The state recently enacted legislation to increase voting options and election security, including an expansion of early voting, an online portal for requesting a mail-in ballot, and a gradual transition to voting systems that guarantee a paper ballot trail.”
One of the easiest ways that states could make voting easier is allowing earlier counting of mail-in ballots. “In some states, notably Michigan, Wisconsin and New York weren’t allowed to count ballots early and the delayed results helped create this conspiracy and allow disinformation,” McReynolds said.
However, the panel warned that differing states’ approaches to voting rights could raise future problems when a voter in one state is treated differently than one in another state. They called for Congress to take a stronger role in crafting election laws.
McReynolds said that while a record number of people voted in the 2020 presidential election, only registered 66% of eligible voters, meaning that 1-in-3 eligible voters still did not vote.
“When asked why, those people said they missed the early deadline for early registration or didn’t have enough information,” McReynolds said.
She said involving more people in the voting process will also help cement trust in elections through their participation.
Ned Foley, a law professor at the Ohio State University and national expert on election law, said that most people don’t fully appreciate the issue of chain-of-custody, or how ballots are stored, counted and processed. He said that more needs to be done to spell out and protect officials who have are part of that chain-of-custody, because it’s nearly impossible to undermine election results if the ballots have been collected and secured in an ironclad way.
He believes one of the election threats on the horizon is unofficial recounts, like the one that happened with the CyberNinjas in Arizona, where inexperienced or partisan organizations want to review ballots.
“The chain-of-custody is important because officials cannot subvert an honest count,” Foley said.
Panelists gave a variety of recommendations for to prevent incidents like Jan. 6 from happening again. One of those solutions centered on pressuring social media to self-monitor for disinformation or misinformation campaigns, especially those being supported by countries hostile to America. Chertoff also said that if social media companies will not take a more active role in monitoring, then Congress needs to step in to put controls on algorithms that feed a diet of misinformation to some people.
Panelists also were encouraged that the federal government has started to treat voting equipment and the election as essential infrastructure, not something solely left to local election officials.
Foley warned that politicians using a crisis to forward a lie would not likely stop with former President Donald Trump and his supporters. “We need a better system to handle ‘The Big Lie 2.0’,” Foley said.
Foley said America’s two-party system is based on the notion that both wanting the same thing – a democratic government and the promise of a peaceful transition of power after an election.
“If Trump is successful in purging people from the party who were honest, then the system will collapse on itself,” Foley said. “It can be destroyed from within. But if Trump weighing-in on candidates results in losses, it becomes a hollow threat. And that’s huge.”
Terry Ao Minnis, senior director of Census and Voting Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told the group that one positive was the very public way in which some of the perpetrators of Jan. 6 have been prosecuted. She said that seeing people held accountable for the riots may deter future plans for similar activities, although she said accountability must also extend to the politicians who supported the “Big Lie.”
“Accountability is key here,” Minnis said.
McReynolds said that more laws are needed at both the state and local level to safeguard officials from political pressure, like that applied to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
“We saw officials doing the right thing and that’s because of individual integrity,” McReynolds said. “But we need to have proper guardrails in the system.”
Foley added that there was a thin silver lining to the very dark cloud of Jan. 6, 2021: Many of the people who descended on the Capitol wanted democracy, they were duped into thinking the election had been stolen, but in interviews, they felt they were fighting for democracy.
“We have to figure out how to puncture that bubble,” Foley said. “We need to tap into that residual demand for democracy because we all want an honest democracy.”