Voters in Alabama and across the nation will find polling places “different from what they’ve previously experienced” because of the coronavirus pandemic, Auburn University researcher Dr. Bridgett King said Tuesday. And King’s research shows the experience people have at the polls “is one of the measures the public uses to determine how much confidence and trust they have in the overall process.”
King and other voting experts briefed election reporters across the country Tuesday about what to expect Nov. 3. The briefing started with polling results from moderator Rick Weiss of SciLine, a research resource for journalists based at the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science. It ended with a prediction that we will know the winner the day after the election.
“A poll last week said 46 percent of voters say they are uncomfortable to go to the polls, six in 10 would prefer to vote before Election Day, but only three in 10 are confident that if they did, their ballot would be counted correctly,” Weiss said. That lack of trust makes it even more important voters understand the changes they will see Election Day and why they were made, the researchers said.
Computer models of voting place layouts show it is possible to vote safely, King said, but voters will need “clear direction on how to enter and exit … a 3-foot (wide) path and something like arrows on the floor at a grocery.”
One unknown is how many voters will show up. The debate over voting by mail is over, and voting by mail won, the researchers said. Every state will have some mix of voting by mail and voting in person.
Election fraud is very unlikely, one researcher said, but the belief it happens is high. And the greatest defense against fraud is the same every election: the paper ballot. “Well over 80 percent of ballots (this election) will be cast on paper,” said Stanford University law professor Dr. Nathaniel Persily. “That needs to be stressed.”
The core of any plan to protect elections “has to be based on good old-fashioned paper ballots and making sure those ballots are rigorously audited after every election,” said Dr. Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan. “It may sound retrograde, a computer scientist recommending paper, but it’s actually pretty sophisticated.”
As long as paper and machine totals agree, he said, that’s a pretty good defense against cheating. “We don’t have to look at and count every ballot,” Halderman said. “We have to sample enough to be able to confirm the outcome with good reliability.”
“The issue for this election is we are moving tens of millions of voters to a new system they are not familiar with, whether it’s new types of polling places or whether it’s mail balloting,” Persily said. “We’ve never had to transform the American electoral infrastructure in such a significant way in such a short period of time.”
Halderman said the goal of any cyber attack will be “to weaken our democracy rather than so much to manipulate it in favor of a specific candidate.”
“You don’t have to hack anything to make people think the election is a fraud,” Halderman said. “You just have to make it look like you did or merely suggest that you did. That’s such an easy thing for an attacker to pull off it’s much more likely that will happen than actual hacking to change the results will take place.”
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