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Secretaries of state: Protectors of democracy

Improving election security has been at the frontlines of national political dialogue for the last two years. Within the last year, the Senate introduced two major pieces of legislation related to this issue: the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act and the Enhanced Election Security and Protection Act.

The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act focuses on preserving the peaceful transition of power in certifying elections by placing the responsibility of certifying electoral votes on governors, which makes the role of the vice president more ceremonial.

The Enhanced Election Security and Protection Act seeks to reform and improve election security in the following ways:

— Double federal penalties for threats against election officials and workers.

— Double federal penalties for willfully interfering with voting systems and individuals’ ability to vote.

— Fine increase for willfully failing to preserve election records.

— Reauthorize the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for five years.

— Reform the U.S. Postal Service’s handling of federal election mail.

— Require the U.S. Attorney General to issue guidance related to compliance with federal election record retainment and preservation requirements

Even with this legislation, the federal government has limited involvement in how elections are run. That responsibility falls to each state’s secretary of state.

Idaho secretary of state

The Idaho secretary of state office is divided into three sections: business services, election oversight and government services.

According to the secretary of state’s office, the elections division works to ensure the accuracy and integrity of Idaho’s elections by maintaining and modernizing the security and integrity of the election system. The elections division also seeks to increase campaign finance transparency by simplifying the process of submitting and accessing disclosure reports. While elections are primarily carried out at the county level, the state monitors the state voter registration system.

Chad Houck works in the elections division as the deputy chief of staff to the Idaho secretary of state. He focuses specifically on maintaining and improving cybersecurity in state election infrastructure.

Houck works with federal agencies such as The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the CIA, and has gained security clearance from these organizations to receive secure briefings about national threat actors, insider threats and domestic threats to elections.

Houck sees the strength of many different aspects of Idahoan electoral processes.

“We have some tremendous processes,” Houck said. “We have substantial checks and balances across the systems and a decentralized nature. This system actually makes it very strong because you’d have to compromise a lot of different systems to be able to have a scalable impact (of fraud).”

Houck said the system isn’t infallible and there are some problems that he’s seen.

“We have a pretty significant discontinuity between the IDs used to register to vote and the IDs and the list of acceptable identification on election day when you check in,” Houck said. “You would think those two lists would be the same. They are not and I think that’s a certain area for improvement because that consistency is then going to reduce the number of people that are making the claim that they don’t have the proper ID on election day or that they were never issued that proper type of ID.”

When it comes to changing who can vote or how people can vote, Houck says that’s out of his purview.

“That’s a legislative question,” Houck said. “It’s a policy question. The secretary of state’s office doesn’t set policy, it executes it. The legislature creates policy. We’re just then responsible for executing.”

Relationships with other states

The Constitution directs elections in each state to be run independently from other states. However, that doesn’t mean states shouldn’t consider how they can work with other states.

One way Idaho has partnered with other states is through its voter education video series. Other states, such as Arkansas and Iowa, began adopting similar approaches as Idaho shared the content with them so each state could modify it to their election regulations.

Houck said these efforts help states reach out and educate the public to make sure voters are informed of their state’s election process.

Houck also said the variety between states on how elections are run is the strength of the American political system.

“It’s one of the things that keeps you from being able to manipulate the election on a national level across multiple states because states don’t all use the same processes and procedures,” Houck said.”That is an actual really solid strength that we need to retain.”

Protecting against voter fraud

According to the American Psychological Association, misinformation is false or inaccurate information — getting the facts wrong. Disinformation is false information that is deliberately intended to mislead — intentionally misstating facts.

Houck said the biggest problems in future elections will be misinformation and disinformation, problems that social media algorithms exacerbate.

In addition to higher levels of misinformation and disinformation, concerns about election security have also increased.

“I don’t see Idaho at a high level of risk,” Houck said. ” On a national level, they’re arguing we need to go back to an auditable paper-trackable system.”

While other states moved to electronically based systems to tabulate votes in the mid-2000s, Idaho maintained its paper-based system. Idaho adopted technological processes over the years. The primary way votes are processed is on paper, which is something Houck sees as a strength.

“Yes, we use electronic tabulators but every ballot in Idaho is, was and has always been reduced to paper,” Houck said.

Speed or accuracy?

Due to the increase in absentee ballots and increase in people voting by mail in recent years, sometimes the results of a race will be delayed. For example, in 2020, it took four days for AP to call the race in Pennsylvania. Many midterm races in Nevada this year have yet to be called because of the influx of mail-in ballots coming in.

“If you look at research, you’ll find that the longer it takes for you to produce a result of an election post-election night, the less confidence there is in that result being accurate,” Houck said. “People somehow equate speed to accuracy, which is counterintuitive.”

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