Transparency and integrity in elections are vital to upholding democratic values in the United States, but distrust and misinformation regarding elections have been on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic.
A 2022 report from the U.S. Committee on Oversight and Reform states that “the coronavirus pandemic created a unique environment for voter confusion as states sought to adapt their rules on registering and voting by mail, creating opportunities for online misinformation to spread widely across the country.”
Concerns of electoral integrity were not exclusive to the 2020 election, as similar effects were felt in this year’s midterm elections. In Pennsylvania, claims of election fraud began after the counting of ballots were delayed, and while election officials pushed back on this misinformation, certain politicians, including former President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), gave validity to these claims.
“I think that delays in learning about election outcomes are where concerns can come,” said Jaclyn Kettler, an associate professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State who is working with the Idaho Election Cybersecurity Center. “We have to be patient with some of these races. We may not know immediately, but it doesn’t mean they’re trying to overturn the election.”
The 2020 Idaho Public Policy Survey conducted by researchers at Boise State University found that roughly 19% of all Idahoans and 26% of Republicans in Idaho have concerns about the security of Idaho’s elections. The top concerns among these groups include “voter fraud,” “mail-in ballots” and “misinformation.”
When people do not trust the election process, they are less likely to vote or be politically active individuals, hence why combating misinformation and ensuring electoral integrity is vital. One of the ways that this can be done is to effectively respond to all complaints surrounding elections and keep voters informed.
“If [individuals] are concerned that their vote won’t count or that there’s massive fraud, then that may actually dissuade people from participating altogether,” Kettler said. “Misinformation ends up affecting whether or not people even decide to vote [and] can cast doubt on electoral outcomes, which then raises concerns about whether or not governments are viewed as legitimate.”
Ada County Clerk and Secretary of State-elect Phil McGrane is in charge of all elections within Ada County, but Idaho does not have an employee dedicated exclusively to investigating complaints regarding the election process.
“I’ve seen two competing narratives as I campaigned over this last year: there’s rampant fraud and rampant cheating or the alternative, that there’s no fraud and no cheating, [but] neither of those is true,” McGrane said in an interview with AP News. “Cases do exist, but they’re not huge in volume … It’s really important as election officials for us to pursue those cases so we can show that we’re following through.”
While all complaints regarding Idaho’s elections are investigated in some capacity, there is no central system for doing so, which can create issues.
In 2020, Idaho granted Boise State University $500,000 to develop the Idaho Election Cybersecurity Center, or INSURE. The center’s role is to “recommend and develop tools, technologies and policies to protect fair and democratic election processes.”
INSURE’s team is made up of faculty at Boise State, including the team’s director Hoda Mehrpouyan, as well as several graduate students. One of the center’s current projects involves creating a centralized communication tool that can be used to report and resolve incidents on election day.
“When Idaho respondents handle incidents they’re either calling a representative or they’re calling somebody in the county clerk’s office. Or they’re emailing, or they’re texting and in that amount of time a lot of information can be lost,” said Kamryn Parker, a graduate student at Boise State who is doing research with INSURE. “This [tool] is meant to help election administrators and county clerks contain incidents that are happening in their county on election day.”
This tool will allow for incidents to be reported, reviewed and solved within a single platform. While the tool was not used in the most recent election, it will begin beta testing in the coming weeks. Once complete, INSURE’s tool will be available to all states and counties should they want to use it.
“I think our tool [will] provide a bit of extra information for people when there’s uncertainty,” Parker said. “Our main goal with this project is to keep refining it as much as we can, and we do hope to expand it. It’s really exciting to see the possibilities for voters in Idaho.”