Election officials and legislators both have roles in ensuring election integrity, and a session at the 2021 NCSL Legislative Summit explored how they could help each other.
The panel of two legislators and two election officials said they work on two major fronts: first, securing every aspect of the elections, and second, making sure the public understands elections are secure, and how to cast their votes.
Security is an ongoing challenge.
“One of the things we frequently say about cybersecurity is, it is a race with no finish line,” Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said. “We have made significant investments in our equipment, building those walls. As our adversaries evolve, so must we.
One of the things we frequently say about cybersecurity is, it is a race with no finish line. —Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee
“Oftentimes, we see a disconnect between the good work we are doing and important safety measures we have in place and what the public understands that to be,” she added.
“Worrying about the internal systems is good, and reaching out to do that public information is important,” Nebraska Senator Matt Hansen (D) said. Election officials “are the messenger of trustworthiness and accountability.”
But the panelists acknowledged a wide variation in the way elections are run and how much effort officials can give to the public education role, even though it is especially important now as some press the narrative of flawed elections in 2020, despite more than 60 court cases and numerous audits confirming the results.
Outreach Is Critical
“Voter education and outreach is a critical function for us,” Lee said. “In Florida, it’s one of our specifically delineated responsibilities to encourage participation.”
Brianna Lennon, the county clerk in Boone County, Missouri, said outreach can be a luxury.
“Even as much as we would like it to be part of our job to do voter outreach and education, we don’t always feel like we have the expertise or resources to do it,” Lennon said. “(It) can be a very heavy lift for an office that only has two people in it.”
Lennon said it would help if the Legislature made it part of the clerk’s role, but it would require funding for the extra duties.
Hansen said legislators need good feedback from election officials to understand the needs, and the real costs.
“In Nebraska, we have county-level administration of elections—93 counties, some quite large, several over 100,000 population, a handful under 500 people,” Hansen said. “That shows difficulty on a state level of trying to figure out what’s needed on a county by county basis.”
There is not one source of funding for running elections. Officials rely on federal, state and local money. Some counties have more to spend than others.
Lennon said her county may learn of an effective voter outreach plan but cannot replicate it “because we don’t have money for envelopes.”
States try to ensure consistency across counties.
Lee said Florida did an extensive review of cybersecurity, and it was “abundantly clear our counties are in very different situations.”
She noted some counties simply did not have the resources to manage cybersecurity, so the Legislature funded IT staff “who we deploy all over Florida to help them develop a plan to meet security deadlines,” Lee said.
Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman (R) noted he had suggested that his state buy voting machines so that all counties would have the same equipment, and security, maintenance and repair would be consistent across the state.
That didn’t go anywhere, a testament to the tradition of local control, he said.
Learning From Colleagues
That said, election officials are regularly learning from their counterparts in other counties and states.
Lennon said NCSL is a critical resource for tracking best practices in election administration.
And the election officials on the panel touted the Election Registration Information Center as a valuable national resource for managing voter rolls. ERIC is a nonprofit organization that helps its 32 members states ensure the accuracy of their rolls.
Huffman raised concerns about verifying mail-in ballots. He noted that he’s been at the polling place when a ballot was “spit out” by the machine because it had been marked for two presidential candidates.
He wondered if broad use of mail-in ballots means those mistakes result in rejected ballots and worries poll workers don’t have the expertise to catch ballot signatures that don’t match the signature on file for the registered voter.
Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to the Election Program of the Democracy Fund, said signature verification is a tiered approach. “It was never solely my decision (as a poll worker). If I thought it was an exception, it went to someone else” for review. She noted most poll workers have had hours of training on how to recognize signature mismatches.
Given the critical importance and complex nature of voting systems, the election officials and legislators stressed the need for consistent, thorough communication about how the system is operating and what election officials need to ensure utmost integrity. And all agreed that communicating that integrity to the public is vital.
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.