Election 2020
Process and Technology Risks in Competitive States

With mail-ballots currently being distributed in some states, and with the start of in-person early voting in others, the 2020 Presidential Election is already underway. Indeed, less than one month remains before the last day of voting, on November 3.

During the coming weeks, America’s election infrastructure will be tested as  perhaps never before, especially due to changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Add in threats of foreign interference, disinformation, intense polarization, and ill-founded presidential warnings of “rigged” results, and the country is in for a challenging election process.

Our best predictions of what could go wrong in the coming election were addressed in our recently-released Murphy’s Guide to the 2020 Election.  It is a very detailed extensive look at anything and everything that could (or is already poised to) go wrong.  However, this article is more targeted with a supporting reference table and planned weekly updates now through the election.

The Dance Cards

As in previous Presidential elections, some “swing states” whose outcomes still hang in the balance will have an out-sized impact on the Electoral College totals, and on who is ultimately declared the winner of the Presidential race. In that context, we present “Swing Dance,” our assessment of the process and technology risks that exist in the 14 most competitive states for the 2020 election:

  1. Arizona
  2. Florida
  3. Georgia
  4. Iowa
  5. Maine
  6. Michigan
  7. Minnesota
  8. Nevada
  9. New Hampshire
  10. North Carolina
  11. Ohio
  12. Pennsylvania
  13. Texas
  14. Wisconsin

This analysis takes as its starting point the many changes in election administration that have happened in response to COVID-19. For example, many states have dramatically altered their policies to expand access to by-mail voting for all voters; others have struggled to recruit poll workers and to secure physical facilities necessary to support in-person voting without long lines; and still others are grappling with all of those changes in the midst of also implementing new voting technology that will be used in a Presidential Election for the very first time. For all of these reasons, diverse operational and technology issues in election administration add up to a unique risk profile in each of the competitive states above.

The Dance Moves We’re Watching

The heart of our Swing Dance analysis is a downloadable summary table developed and produced by our Global Director of Technology & Standards, Eddie Perez, that summarizes the unique policy, process and technology issues, and also our overall risk assessment for each state.

Our assessment includes the following information about each state:

  • Size: Number of Electoral College votes and approximate number of total registered voters.
  • Overall risk assessment: Based on our analysis of policy, procedures, and technology, how likely is the state to encounter difficulties around November 3 and in the weeks beyond… especially related to the release of results?
  • Historical voting trend: Before the pandemic hit, what was the most common method of voting in the state, broadly speaking? Most states that are accustomed to voting entirely in-person in previous years have dramatically expanded their by-mail operations in 2020; and a significant change to a new voting method poses process risks, because states may encounter difficulties scaling up their by-mail operations, or dealing with less-familiar procedures.
  • Electronic poll book use: Whether states use e-pollbooks or not can play a significant factor in their technology vulnerabilities. When e-pollbooks work well, they can speed check-in and they are essential to support early voting and vote centers; on the other hand, however, problems with e-pollbook connectivity to voter registration databases have been the cause of dramatically long lines and voter frustration in some recent elections, because the check-in process at polling places can be stalled when e-pollbook problems arise.
  • Percentage of total ballots cast by-mail in mid-term 2018 vs. primary 2020 elections: These statistics often illustrate dramatic changes in voter behavior due to the pandemic. In 2020, many states have seen increases in by-mail voting that amount to hundreds of percentage points.
  • Voting policies: Most important are any restrictions on access to by-mail voting, as well as voter access to early voting. Those states that provide robust options for voters to vote in various ways are more likely to relieve pressure on in-person polling places on Election Day.
  • By-mail “pre-processing”: Many states allow election officials to do some “pre-work” to lessen the burden of counting by-mail ballots, even if those same officials are restricted in when they can actually start counting (i.e. scanning) ballots. For example, this “pre-processing” may include activities such as verifying signatures on ballot return envelopes; opening envelopes and removing ballots; and flattening ballots to prepare them for scanning. Policies that allow “pre-processing” can be very consequential in how quickly states can manage a large influx of by-mail ballots and report results. And, in contrast, states with highly restrictive policies on pre-processing can create damaging bottlenecks for election officials, especially if they cannot start managing by-mail envelopes until close to Election Day.
  • By-mail tabulation: Tabulation is the process of actually calculating the results from ballots that have been scanned. Most states allow tabulation only on Election Day; some allow states to start earlier, but they must keep results secret until they are released on Election Day.
  • Exceptional risks: On a case-by-case basis, our summary table also highlights any unique process or technology risks that may be unique to a given state. For example, some states recently implemented new technology; some have little experience with by-mail voting, despite a huge influx in those ballots; and others may use vulnerable technology such as wireless modems to transmit unofficial results and audit logs from ballot scanning tabulators.

A final note: our overall assessment of risk in each state is relative to the other states, and not absolute. To put a finer point on it: we have faith in election administrators, and we believe that they are capable of running elections with integrity, even in these very challenging times. Whether a state is classified as green, yellow, or red in our rubric is simply a shorthand for our assessment of the overall burden (and hence attendant vulnerability) that election officials in those states face, whether from process issues or other issues related to their voting or election technology.

In conclusion, our summary analysis considers the “fundamentals” in these 14 competitive states, which are not likely to dramatically change between now and November 3.

However, as recent court cases have illustrated, there is still the possibility for legal decisions or other variables to impact the election framework in any given state. We will continue to monitor those ongoing news events and additional “buzz” and post weekly updates in the “Latest Developments” section, below, so stay tuned.

Latest Developments

  1. Weekly Update #1 (week of 11.October).
  2. Weekly Update #2 (week of 18.October).