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A Secure Election and an Insecure Transition

By Brooke Carloss

The 2020 Election Outperformed Expectations

In an eventful and often stressful year for many people across the United States, Tuesday November 3 looked like it would be a culmination of high tensions. Increasing political polarization made the transparency and the security of the 2020 election vital to maintain public trust. Conflict experts warned that election day showed potential to become violent as supporters on each side worried the other would steal the election. Businesses in Washington D.C. boarded up windows and the Metropolitan Police Department prepared to deal with riots should violent protests breakout. Government officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, tried to reassure the public and encouraged voting without fear, and it appears the worrying expectations for election day did not materialize.

The reception of millions of mail-in-ballots expectedly delayed clear projections of a winner in multiple states; tensions remained high, yet the election itself was fairly successful. Polling places experienced only minor problems. Our worst fears were not met, and violence did not breakout at polling places. Voting ran relatively smoothly, partly due to alteration of state election rules and clarification of those rules through litigation prior to election day. Remarkably, a record number of people voted early. There was also no serious threat to voting infrastructure. CISA released a statement on November 12, noting the election was “the most secure in American history.” CISA found no evidence that any voting system was in any way compromised.

Post-Election Risks Still Present

Although the election was determined to be secure and Joe Biden was projected to be the winner by major media outlets, division across the country continues to create a contentious post-election landscape. President Trump has refused to concede the election and asserted the election was rigged against him in a tweet from his personal twitter account posted on November 15. The Trump campaign team has filed numerous lawsuits alleging fraud and violations of state voting rules. The legal battles will run their course and it is unlikely the outcomes will alter the result of the election.

In the meantime, President Trump’s reaction to the outcome of the election has driven his supporters to reject the media’s projections and to take to the streets in support of his campaign. The Million MAGA March brought thousands of the President’s supporters to Washington D.C. on Saturday, November 14. But the march did not go off without a hitch as Trump supporters and counter protesters clashed Saturday evening. Twenty-one people were reportedly arrested and face criminal charges. The question remains whether the two sides can reconcile the result of the election. Undoubtedly, President Trump’s conduct will play an important role in the stability of the transition period.

Political division and a remaining potential for violence are the most visible domestic security threats, but resistance to transitioning on the administration level also poses a significant risk to national security. U.S. national security is best preserved when there is a responsible, collaborative transition of power. President Trump is showing an unwillingness to engage in the transition of power by denying Biden resources and access to intelligence briefings. Without access to vital information, the incoming national security team will not be able to make informed decisions about potential threats that it cannot anticipate. The GSA has also declined to ascertain that Biden won the election, delaying funding and office space for the transition and preventing Biden’s team from communicating with government agencies. Communication is important to determine what the outgoing administration was already doing so new officials can determine how to alter policy.

Delaying the transition could further delay background checks and granting security clearances for individuals on the incoming national security team. Transitions can be viewed as a time of vulnerability by adversaries and having an incomplete national security team in place puts the country at risk. David Marchick, Director of the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, recalls the 9/11 Commission finding that one of the problems in the Bush administration’s ability to react to the attack “was the slow pace of the Bush administration getting their national security team in place.” The delayed transition and lack of cooperation could leave the Biden team unprepared for a crisis, including the health crisis we currently face in responding to the spread of COVID-19.

While we should be proud of the American institutions that secured the 2020 election, the Trump administration’s rejection of the election and unwillingness to cooperatively initiate the transition of power poses potential risks to the public and the next administration’s ability to prepare.


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