116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and do not represent the views or opinions of the Linn County Auditor’s Office.
I find the people who reject or even raise an eyebrow at the outcome of the 2020 election come to that belief with one or more of three separate grievances, none of which I necessarily endorse or agree with. I also don’t find them terribly practical insofar as what could be accomplished by hashing them out now, two years after the 2020 election.
The first of those three grievances: That results may have been altered by improperly counted ballots as a result of hastily changed voting procedures under emergency public health orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states did make very large changes to their voting operations out of concern for the novel coronavirus, like reducing in-person voting options or loosening the rules on counting mail ballots that ordinarily wouldn’t meet the legal standard to be counted. If people want to have a conversation about how those changes might have impacted the 2020 election, fine — but proving that it affected the outcome is almost certainly an impossible task.
The second grievance: The outcome of the election was impacted by withholding of information from voters who could not access it on major information venues, such as social media sites Facebook and Twitter, which blocked certain news stories from their platforms by labeling them as misinformation. If people want to have a conversation about whether Big Tech censorship impacted how people voted, let them. Again, proving it is an entirely different story.
Finally, the third grievance: The claim that the 2020 election was outright stolen by hacked voting machines, nefarious algorithms and ballot-stuffing — in other words, outright fraud. Some, such as Mike Lindell, (the kooky My Pillow guy) and a former math teacher named Douglas Frank, who claims to have discovered “the algorithms that were controlling the election,” believe they have proved that widespread fraud did in fact alter the results of the 2020 presidential contest. But they haven’t actually proved it, and they won’t — because what they’re peddling is utter crap.
No, I don’t mince words when it comes to election conspiracy theories — at least not when those theories make their way to Iowa and put into doubt our own state’s electoral security. In late August, a group called Iowa Canvassing hosted Dr. Frank for an hourslong presentation that included discussion about “phantom ballots” being counted with no actual voter having cast them, a mysterious algorithm that can change vote counts, and easily hackable ballot tabulators. It’s pretty out-there stuff, presented by a mathematician in a bow tie using a dizzying array of graphs and mathematical terms like “sixth order polynomial” in an easy, confident and convincing fashion to people whose disenchantment with the outcome of the 2020 election makes them naturally receptive to the message.
Normally, I wouldn’t want to even acknowledge such bizarre claims, lest I add even more hype to an already toxic issue. Certain parties on each end of the spectrum do just that, wanting to keep the issue front and center so your alarm will propel you to align with their cause. One side wants you to believe that our polling process is unsafe because of fraudsters and their master plans to rig an election. The other wants you to believe that process is unsafe from people who want to suppress your vote in any way they can. Both serve to do the same thing — sow doubt in the voting process and instill fear into voters.
But regardless of the origins, there are people out there, including here in Iowa, who, to varying degrees, have earnest concerns about security vulnerabilities in Iowa’s voting system that make them open to ideas about how to improve them. I could describe those the same way I describe 2020 conspiracy theories — as “utter crap” — and find to no one’s surprise that insulting a person for thinking the way they do accomplishes nothing. Or I could examine them on their merits and offer an equally earnest rebuttal. If I care about election security, I’m wise to do the latter.
Using ballots with watermarks are a perfect example of an earnest idea to improve election security. But watermarked ballot stock could come at a considerable cost to county elections offices, taking the biggest chunks out of small counties’ budgets. Furthermore, it would only be as good as an election official’s ability to confirm its authenticity, which would require training and even equipment to detect it. Watermarking would also only prevent the counterfeiting of a ballot. It would do nothing to prevent fraud if a watermarked ballot made its way into the hands of a person who fraudulently marks and then casts it. Keeping ballots under lock and key is already standard practice of elections departments across the state — watermarked or not.
Given that any security gain from watermarked ballots would be very limited in nature, requiring watermarked ballots does not offer enough of an advantage to justify the cost. Not all cast ballots would be able to have those watermarks either, as federal law mandates that overseas voters, including uniformed service members, be able to print their ballots on plain paper and submit them with a standardized from through the mail. State law cannot supersede that. Nor can it supersede federal requirements for accessible ballot-marking machines, which I myself used to cast my ballot the other day. Those also print on standard paper.
Ballots aren’t the only thing kept under lock and key by county elections departments. So is the machinery used to tabulate votes. Another idea being pushed by election security critics is to do away with those machines, claiming that they can be hacked or tampered with, arguing instead for hand-counting ballots at local precincts.
I cannot emphasize enough that Iowa’s voting tabulators are not hooked up to the internet. There is no wireless connectivity in them. Manipulating them to alter the vote count would require not only intimate knowledge of the machine itself, but physical access to the machine and the ability to evade all other security protocol. It’s kind of ironic that some members of the public would only be satisfied with existing security procedures if they knew their full extent, yet sharing their full extent is the very antithesis of those security procedures.
Here’s what the public is allowed to know about security in electronic ballot tabulators: They are tested, per state law, publicly, meaning even the strongest election skeptic can see in person how they work. Those machines keep a paper trail, as all balloting (even from accessible ballot-marking machines) is done on paper. Iowa state law mandates an audit of a precinct chosen at random in each county. Secretary of State Paul Pate announced last week that he is expanding that to two precincts in which a hand recount will be required.
For a fraudster to somehow tamper with the machine physically and then evade detection during either testing or audit — while still manipulating enough votes to throw an election — would be virtually impossible. It would certainly not be plausible enough to warrant hand-counting of ballots by local precinct officials. It would be unbelievably tedious and easily subject to human error just from the sheer number of ballots to count, which range in the hundreds and even in the thousands. I once worked a school board and bond election that drew over 2,600 voters in a single day.
I am not worried about election denial becoming pervasive among Iowa’s lawmakers. Most state legislative candidates whose platforms include allegations of widespread fraud in 2020 don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting elected. A couple of them will be elected, but any wild ideas to reform election security such as those I mentioned above would likely not get far in their caucus, let alone achieve a floor vote. Much of the hype over election denial will continue to come from those (on both sides of the aisle) who seek to gain politically from it.
Election denial does not deserve your attention. It deserves one simple fate: Death for lack of light and oxygen. Election security, however, is an issue that does. And luckily for Iowans, we’re already pretty good at it.
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