Humphrey School News—October 20, 2016

Humphrey Expert: Five Questions About Election Integrity

As questions over the integrity of the election system in the United States continue to be debated in advance of the November 8 election, elections officials are vigorously disputing claims that the outcome could be “rigged” or “hacked.”

The National Association of Secretaries of State calls those claims “unsubstantiated,” and in a statement issued October 19, seeks to assure Americans that the voting process is “fairly administered and well-secured, with built-in structural safeguards to ensure honest outcomes and accurate results.” 

Election experts from around the country, including the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, echo those sentiments. Here are some insights from Doug Chapin, director of the Humphrey School’s Program for Excellence in Election Administration, and Tammy Patrick, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, who discussed these issues at a forum in Washington, DC, on October 19. 

First, some definitions:

Rigging is the attempt to determine the outcome of an election before it occurs. In theory, it would occur when something breaks or a bad actor gets involved somewhere between the casting of ballots and the counting of them. Voter registration fraud is one example, if someone who is not properly registered to vote tries to vote anyway, or someone tries to vote more than once.

Hacking is the attempt to change the outcome of the election after voting has taken place, presumably by hacking into election computer systems and manipulating the results.

1. How secure are voter registration records? Can they be hacked or subjected to identity theft?

Most states have now implemented online voter registration, which makes it easier for people to register to vote, but also makes it easier for elections officials to verify voter eligibility with other records like driver’s licenses, etc. Online systems are more secure and accurate than paper forms that some organizations have used in voter registration drives.

In terms of security, information collected through online voter registration systems typically does not flow directly into statewide registration databases. Instead, voter information is sent to each local registrar of voters for processing. So there’s no central database for hackers to target to gain access to large numbers of voters’ personal information.

2. Is it possible for hackers to get into the computerized election results and change the outcome of the vote? 

No. It’s impossible to change the outcome of an election remotely, particularly a nationwide election. For one thing, the election system is highly decentralized; it’s administered by close to 10,000 state and local government jurisdictions around the country. Machines for voting and tabulation are standalone and are not connected to the internet.  There is no central point of entry and no national system that could be attacked.

What’s more, any large-scale fraud would not go undetected.  These systems have several layers of security and established chains of custody which would cause any such manipulation to be noticed.

3. Is it possible for people who are ineligible to vote, such as undocumented immigrants and convicted felons, to cast ballots anyway?

For anyone to receive a ballot they need to be registered to vote first. When someone fills out a voter registration application, it goes to other agencies such as motor vehicles and corrections to be verified, to make sure the individual is eligible. If they aren’t eligible, they won’t be registered. In rare cases, a person could try to obtain a mail-in ballot under someone else’s name. But many states require signature verification, so the imposter would have to be able to accurately forge the person’s signature multiple times in the process.  

4. Is it possible for people to 'stuff the ballot box' by voting more than once for their candidate?

Examples of this kind of fraud are rare to non-existent because it’s impossible to get away with. An individual voter is only registered once, only receives one ballot at the polls, and would not be able to impersonate someone else for the reasons stated above.

Even if someone attempted this type of fraud, it would be noticed. There is meticulous oversight of the elections process and a great deal of advance preparation. Weeks before an election, officials are checking registration lists, verifying absentee and vote by mail ballot requests, testing their voting machines, etc. So any abnormalities, particularly involving large numbers of votes, would be immediately spotted.

5. What other safeguards are in place to prevent malfeasance on Election Day? 

Elections don’t end on Election Night. There’s a process called canvassing that takes place shortly afterward to certify the vote. Many jurisdictions also conduct post-election audits. There may be small disturbances at the local level. But the wholesale outcome-altering conspiracies that are being discussed right now are impossible given the number of times that the process is checked and verified. Election officials trust their voters, but they verify the process numerous times so they and the voting public are confident in an accurate outcome.  

A closing thought from Doug Chapin

“Things won’t go smoothly on Election Day. But it wouldn’t be America, it wouldn’t be democracy, if it did. Mistakes happen because of the human element involved. But the outcome is something we can rely on. These kinds of mistakes are not the result of an intentional effort to alter the outcome of the election. It’s the inevitable, glorious result of America being America.”

More election resources:

Humphrey School's Election Academy

National Association of Secretaries of State

Commentary by Doug Chapin and Professor Larry Jacobs in The Hill   

Bipartisan Policy Center

Presidential Commission on Election Administration  

Election Assistance Commission 

Office of Communications

Humphrey School of Public Affairs
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