CISA COVID Working Group Helps Election Officials Navigate “Swim Lanes” of Rapid Transition to Absentee/VBM

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The latest electionlineWeekly features a collaborative effort spearheaded by the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to assist election officials nationwide with rapidly standing up absentee voting and vote-by-mail in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Take a look:

According to the U.S. Census, in 2018, just 6.2 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the Northeast part of the country did so by mail/via absentee. In the South, it was 9.7 percent. Overall, just 23.1 percent of the 2018 ballots were cast by mail/absentee.

Now with the nation in the grips of a global pandemic and the November 3 general election less than seven months away, many states are figuring out how to expand the ability to vote absentee/by mail.

For states like Arizona, where the majority of residents are on the state’s Permanent Early Voting List, which means they get a ballot in the mail, the lift to go to an all/mostly mail election for November, if they choose to, would be relatively “simple”. For places like the District of Columbia where only about 8 percent of the 2016 general election ballots were cast by absentee, the move to greatly expand voting by mail will be a big lift, but not impossible.

This week the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (GCC) and Sector Coordinating Council’s (SCC) Joint COVID Working Group have put out six FAQ/ consideration documents on how to increase absentee or vote by mail in time for November. The purpose of the COVID working group is to support state and local officials and their private sector partners run elections during this pandemic by looking at everything from expanded mail voting to in-person voting in a social distancing environment.

“These are unprecedented times for everyone, especially election officials.  These documents provide state and local election offices with answers to some of the questions they might have as well as some they might not have thought of yet but need to be aware of,” said Lori Augino, director of elections for the State of Washington and president of the National Association of State Election Directors. “I’m proud of how our community is working together to help Americans cast their ballots this year.”

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, as an executive committee member, agreed to chair the working group. The group started with calls focusing on general responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, but much of the requests for information centered on how to expand absentee/ voting by mail along a realistic spectrum in each state.

In order to not get bogged down in issues pertaining to each jurisdiction the group considered how to create a slightly different governing approach that could address the risks and concerns that the election community as a whole will need to consider. The working group further divided into smaller groups — or what they liked to call “swim lanes” — that focused on a specific area.

“With election officials around the country reexamining their 2020 election plans to account for the impact of COVID-19, I am confident this series of documents can help with the tough decisions they face,” said EAC Chairman Ben Hovland. “This group effort represents input from all aspects of the elections community including state and local election officials, federal partners, and industry professionals. The ability to pull people together and create these documents so quickly would not have been possible without the critical infrastructure governance being in place for elections.”

The goal was to expedite the collection of existing best practices and assist in the efficient development of tools and resources. Each subgroup was assigned a lead and worked through which elections officials and organizations would be contacted about each topic so they didn’t overwhelm the same people, people who are also be contacted by individual elections officials and the media.

According to Ryan Macias, who served as a lead on several of the swim lanes, the support from both the GCC and SCC was great.

“We have to give a specific thanks to the SCC,” Macias said. “In addition to the assistance they provided us, they have collaborated to provide assistance to the election community by reaching out to external companies and associations- some of which may be competitors – to gather accurate and detailed information from the partners that will need to assist in the response.”

The working group recognized that state and local election officials needed information quickly but focused on creating a VBM Project Timeline before diving into the FAQs. The timeline provides a realistic calendar of tasks, specific to each area of focus, to help give a sense of how soon purchasing and other decisions will need to be made.

In addition to creating these initial FAQs, each of the respective working groups gathered information (i.e. procedures, training material, production calendars, etc.) pertaining to their “swim lane” that may assist election officials building an expanded VBM program.

The subgroups’ goal was to drive collaboration so these resources are as useful as possible for the election officials that are currently making difficult decisions on how to best serve their voters.

“I think everyone involved with this effort recognizes that if we’re going to solve the challenges facing election officials now and in November, we need collaboration – but we also need focus,” Jennifer Morrell, another subgroup leader, said. “We can’t have everyone trying to solve all of the problems. We need a way for subject matter experts, civic organizations, vendors, and other groups and organizations to provide the information and solutions that election administrators need now as well as an understanding of the considerations that will need to be made in preparation for November. In other words, we’re all in this together!”

The six FAQ/consideration documents cover outbound processes, ballot applications, inbound processes, signature verification and cure, electronic ballot delivery and ballot drop boxes. There will be four more FAQ/considerations on ensuring voters receive their ballots, education and outreach, in-person voting, and protecting staff to be published in the coming weeks.

Each of these documents was built with collaboration from members of the GCC, government election officials donating expertise to assist, and importantly, members of the private sector and non-profit organizations who work in this arena.

“Elections are hard to administer in the best of times—and incredibly difficult during presidentials,” said Noah Praetz one of the subgroup leaders. “Now this pandemic, and the significant changes that are necessitated, inspired the community to quickly coalesce and provide guidance so that election officials across the country could fast track their information gathering efforts and move on to implementation. This is a community of heroes.”

Vote-by-Mail Application
Every state is in a different place with respect to their current mail voting practices.  Each has different tolerances and capabilities for expansion, with some states currently using lots of mail voting considering going all VBM.  On the other side states with strict excuse requirements for absentee ballots are looking to open that process to no excuse, some even considering active outreach activities to help voters through the process, like direct mail of applications or allowing applications online.  These activities come with operational and security challenges as well that we hoped to help them think through.—Noah Praetz, team lead

Outbound Mail Ballots
Ramping up operations to mail significantly more ballots to voters has tremendous logistical and security considerations. Rewriting contracts, finding vendors and materials, procuring equipment, reengineering manual processes, all take considerable thought and effort to be done securely with zero error tolerance. Our document isn’t prescriptive, but it does hope to position officials in a starting place where they see most of the field before them.—Noah Praetz, team lead

eBallot Delivery
For many jurisdictions conducting vote by mail at scale may not be feasible with limited time between now and the November election. Also, voting by mail poses challenges for many voters, including those with specific needs and Native American populations. The key is to provide voters and election officials options to conduct a free and fair election during this pandemic, while identifying the considerations for managing the risks associated with expanding voting options at scale and under tight timelines.—Ryan Macias, team lead

Ballot Drop Box
Ballot drop boxes provided a way for last-minute voters to return their mail ballot in time to be counted. Temporary indoor boxes and drive-through boxes can be set up quickly and the equipment and supplies are relatively cheap. The key is identifying locations that are convenient, secure and accessible.—Jennifer Morrell, team lead

Inbound Ballot Process
The key to a successful inbound process is tracking and accounting for return ballot envelopes and ballots at each stage of the process and keeping them organized. In addition to tracking forms, color coding is a great practice to adopt. Colored mail trays, signs, and color indicators on mail carts ensure ballots are moved to the correct stage of the process and provide transparency.—Jennifer Morrell, team lead

Signature Verification
Providing signature verification training is important for anyone involved in reviewing signatures. Fortunately, there are training programs from other states that can be borrowed. More importantly, election officials should think about meaningful ways to quickly notify voters of a discrepancy with their signature and provide them with an opportunity to cure the discrepancy.—Jennifer Morrell, team lead

This is, simply, a fantastic resource for the field. With the sudden changes the nation faces in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s gratifying to see key players from every sector of the election community come together to share best practices and show the way forward. Even better, there’s even more information where this came from at CISA’s COVID-19 and Elections page, including a wide range of resources from federal and industry partners. Kudos to CISA, GCC, SCC and the entire “swim team” for these resources – and thanks as always to electionline’s Mindy Moretti for making sure the community gets the word. Be well, take care – and stay tuned …

2 Comments on "CISA COVID Working Group Helps Election Officials Navigate “Swim Lanes” of Rapid Transition to Absentee/VBM"

  1. We have come prepared for this election process but how come we are not prepared for this pandemic, It may be unpredictable the whole world is looking up to us that we can control this kind of situation but honestly, we have not so now are we thinking about the election we have to think clearly the right official to vote, This has given us the lesson.

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