The Midterm Election Showed the Critical Need for Technical Volunteers in 2020

Written by Maurice Turner

The November 2020 General Election already seems like a distant date on the calendar, but for election officials the preparation begins in just a couple of weeks. Performance during the November 2018 Midterm Election is already being assessed so that the lessons learned can be incorporated into plans for primary elections which begin just 15 months from now. 2019 will be the window of opportunity for election officials to make bold moves to continue securing their elections and improving the voting experience for their constituents. One move that can help both of those areas is addressing the lack of technically-capable volunteers.

Rather than the expected reports of cyber-related incidents during the Midterm Election, broken and missing equipment dominated the headlines. In Georgia, electronic poll books used to check-in voters were not writing to the smart cards needed to cast ballots. High humidity caused an unusually-long two-page ballot style to jam scanning machines across New York City. Some straight-party votes cast on DRE machines in Texas appeared to flip selections. These incidents resulted in long lines, dissuaded voters, and lawsuits challenging the validity of the outcome. The danger is that some of these incidents may be interpreted by the public as the malicious acts of foreign adversaries. One solution is tapping into civic-minded community members with technical skills or an IT support (infosec) background to combine their knowledge and talents as technical volunteers.

Election officials already manage a small army of dedicated volunteers that must be identified, vetted, trained, and managed to perform Election Day activities. The traditional volunteers have been adequate for setting up equipment, checking-in voters, and monitoring for compliance. Today, however, they are being asked to perform functions that are much more technical in nature. Modern voting equipment is becoming increasingly more complex and difficult to operate and troubleshoot for users that are not technically-savvy. Volunteers with specific technical abilities and training can perform tasks such as providing in-person tech support at polling locations, assisting with network security, and monitoring social media for misinformation. These tasks are becoming a normal part of election activities. Polling locations with modern equipment such as epollbooks, ballot marking devices, and precinct scanners require volunteers who are comfortable setting up, operating, and troubleshooting them. Voters can sense stressful situations when equipment is not working properly, and that has a negative impact on voter confidence.

“The poll workers were panicked. They just didn’t know how to turn on the machines.”

The cybersecurity job market has tightened, making hiring qualified full-time professionals difficult for many jurisdictions. New ideas to formalize large-scale, on-call technical assistance such as the Civilian Cybersecurity Corps or National Guard deployment will require additional time and legislative/ executive action in order to be realized. Identifying and cultivating a small but powerful base of technically-capable volunteers is something that election officials can do within their existing authority and have in place by 2020. The infosec community can use CDT’s Infosec Toolkit for Election Volunteering to better understand the election process and volunteer roles. Election officials can use CDT’s Election Officials Toolkit for Technical Volunteers to better understand how to vet and deploy technical volunteers.

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