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Senior U.S. election officials talk security, trust, during AU webinar

Senior U.S. election officials talk security, trust, during AU webinar

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One of the nation’s senior advisers for election security Tuesday morning told a webinar audience hosted by Auburn University that officials on all levels – federal, state and local – are working around the clock and putting a long list of measures into place to ensure election security and trust.

The unified effort is all about building voter confidence in the Nov. 3 elections, including the lead-up, vote count and aftermath, so that the nation feels trust in the process and the results, the speaker panel echoed from one another.

Among the poignant messages: Voters have an important role, too.

“Know the source of your information. Is it coming from a trusted source?” said Matthew Masterson of the national Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which operates under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security.

Other steps voters can take to help is to be prepared before Election Day, Masterson said, by knowing the issues on the ballot and what candidates they want to support based on their platforms and stands on important issues.

Going to the polls properly prepared can cut down on time, confusion and long lines, the speakers said.

Additionally, they said, voters should respect local safety protocols put into place, such as with COVID-19 guidelines, and feel compelled to report to local and state officials any concerns or questions they notice during the voting process.

The panel, which included election officials from various states, shared examples of steps already taken or planned to enhance election security on the local and state levels. It is there, they said, where authority most exists and where the bulk of the work is done.

“They are in charge of their elections,” Masterson said. “Our job is to be responsive, to understand their needs, and to react to them.”

Among the help provided by CISA is information-sharing so that various security and government officials can learn from one another.

“Election officials have more access to election security and intelligence than they’ve ever had before,” he said.

David Stafford, supervisor of elections in Escambia County, Florida, said there is “no doubt we’re further along. But unfortunately, the threat has grown with us.”

Misinformation from untrusted and unverified sources remains among the biggest threat to a fair election, the officials said, but the question of trust in the entire process still looms large, according to Stafford.

“There’s still some tension, and there always will be, and to some extent, I think that’s healthy,” Stafford said.

“We had a national election in 2018 that was extremely successful based on all accounts,” he said in a note of encouragement. “We did it successfully, in arguably the biggest swing state in the country.”

All of the speakers expressed confidence in a secure 2020 election.

Kathleen Hale, director of Auburn University’s program in election administration, was praised by Masterson for the work she and Auburn have done in partnership with CISA and other entities to research and identify election issues that need addressing on local levels.

Her department's work highlighted the need for increased funding to help local election entities that must compete with numerous other agencies for funds from county budgets.

“The local election office, that is where elections are real to the voters, and this is where public trust has to be supported,” Hale said.

Impressed “by the resilience of local election officials,” whom she called heroic, she said, “We’re engaged in a really important conversation about what can be done now.”

Yet, despite a pandemic, hurricanes, cyber threats, misinformation and other challenges that occur one after another, “it is a challenge that is being met” by local agencies, officials and volunteers throughout the country.

Another way voters can help, panel members said, is to volunteer or apply to be a poll worker.

Information on that and other questions about the voting process normally can be found on a county’s website, as well as on state and federal websites, such as that operated by CISA.

Tuesday's webinar was hosted by Auburn University's McCrary Institute, headed by Homeland Security veteran adviser and frequent congressional witness Frank Cilluffo.

The institute has received national accolades in the past two years for its work and research in cybersecurity, software engineering and other related fields.

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Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He previously served as the news editor in New York for the nation's second largest newspaper company, and as the senior editor at several other news entities around the nation. He is an Auburn alum.

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