When Gov. Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s new restrictive voting provisions into law, he claimed the controversial changes—including making it harder to request mail ballots and use drop boxes—are necessary to improve election security. These bills, of course, spring from the Big Lie about our elections, but there is another irony here. Much of the “election integrity” legislation in Georgia and around the country would actually weaken our election systems and reduce their capacity to recover from a technological problem, whether a malfunction or an attack.
During the 2020 election, the increased variety in voting methods and the longer time frame for voting meant that, in many states, election officials were handling smaller groups of voters and ballots at once than they were in past elections. If a technological problem arose, the reduced crowds made it easier to diagnose and solve the problem and get voters voting again.
For example, during early voting in 2020, Georgia’s statewide voter registration database was having trouble handling the logins of election staff across the state. The problem caused extremely long lines. Georgia officials weren’t able to fix it immediately, but within a few days the issue was addressed, lines improved, and voters who might have not been able to stand in long lines because of work or other obligations still had opportunities to cast their ballot. If there had only been one or two days for in-person voting, those voters might not have had another chance. And the lines would have been even longer, with many more voters showing up to cast their ballot at once.
Many of the so-called election integrity bills would reduce the availability of ballot drop boxes—one bill in Florida would eliminate them entirely. During the 2020 election, drop boxes were a convenient voting option for many people who might have been concerned about the reliability of the post office: Voters could drop their absentee ballot into a nearby box instead of showing up to polling places on Election Day. This helped reduce the lines at polling places for those voters who preferred or needed the in-person option instead. Drop boxes helped all voters—absentee and in-person—by making sure they didn’t all show up to the polling place on Election Day, which would have made it harder for poll workers to deal with inevitable technical problems or cyberattacks. Even if fears of delays with the postal system subside in the future, cyberattacks or staffing cuts could result in slow mail service, or election officials could have trouble processing ballot requests quickly, leading to delays in voters receiving their ballots in time to mail them back. Drop boxes will help ensure the resiliency of the system.
And finally, bills being introduced attacking same-day voter registration undermine the recovery capabilities these systems provide for two of the biggest vulnerabilities in U.S. elections: voter registration databases and electronic poll books. Many of them—including in Georgia—are not formally certified to any security standards. This makes them more vulnerable to cyberattacks or breakdowns. When registration is required in order to be eligible to vote, attacks on the registration lists can have a devastating effect, impeding the ability of election workers to check in voters at polling places or process their mail ballots. Same-day registration is a fail-safe—even if the list is compromised, voters can register on the day they show up to vote and cast their ballots.
While the push to restrict voting and undermine election security is disheartening, the crush of new bills—as of March 24, legislators had introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states—has pushed Congress to take action. The House passed the For the People Act, which includes crucial election reforms, and the bill has been introduced in the Senate. The For the People Act would create a national standard for voting access and security by, among other things, ensuring minimum requirements for early voting, voting by mail, drop boxes, and same-day registration. The bill would have other election security benefits, including replacing insecure paperless voting machines (which are still used in seven states) and promoting postelection audits to build confidence in results. The For the People Act would cancel out many of the worst restrictions on voting access that have been introduced or become law.
But can it pass through the Senate and reverse these regressive efforts? There are certainly real challenges. Senate Democratic leaders are on record saying the filibuster cannot be an impediment to its passage. But even before they figure that out, they must get Democratic holdout Sen. Joe Manchin on board. He says he supports many of the bill’s provisions but would prefer to find a bipartisan solution. Given how far apart the two sides are, a major compromise seems dubious.
None of this means the bill can’t pass. Indeed, the brazen attempts by state lawmakers to undermine voting rights—and consequently election security—just might force the hands of both Manchin and Congress into passing For the People Act, resulting in a long overdue national baseline for voter access and election security.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.