Towson University professor aims to bolster local election security at voting sites

During a presidential election marked by heightened anxiety over election security, a Towson University associate professor is expanding a program she began in 2017 to assess potential risks to state elections and train election workers to prevent vulnerabilities at voting sites.



a man standing in a room: Election judge Jayson Harvey, left, had plenty of time to sanitize the voting booths between voters as turnout at Martin's West voting center was light. More voters who had not mailed in their ballots seems to be taking advantage of the drive-through official ballot drop box located outside the entrance to Martin's West. This is one of three in-person voting centers for the 7th Congressional District special election to fill the seat made vacant by the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings. April 28, 2020


© Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/The Baltimore Sun/TNS
Election judge Jayson Harvey, left, had plenty of time to sanitize the voting booths between voters as turnout at Martin’s West voting center was light. More voters who had not mailed in their ballots seems to be taking advantage of the drive-through official ballot drop box located outside the entrance to Martin’s West. This is one of three in-person voting centers for the 7th Congressional District special election to fill the seat made vacant by the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings. April 28, 2020

Natalie Scala, associate professor of business analytics and technology management, said the thrust of her research is: “How do we ensure the votes of the typical American have integrity? And how do we protect that process?”

The program, which uses ongoing research on cyber, physical and insider threats to elections to develop electronic training modules created for poll workers, is one of the few in the country that focuses on election security at the polling place itself, she said.

“At the state level, there’s a lot of thinking and scorecard analyses of how to keep [elections at the] state level safe,” Scala said, “but the public interacts with the process at the polling place.”

And in a year when polling places have been replaced by fewer voting centers, and new election judges are replacing veteran election judges who often are older and more at risk of coronavirus complications, training poll workers about how to identify and prevent security breaches is all the more important — especially since Maryland does not mandate statewide election security training for poll workers.

“Poll workers are a first line of defense,” Scala said. “We want to make sure they could know what could happen … and fix it right away at the source before it becomes an issue.”

Security breaches at a polling place or voting center most likely would arise from human error, and election judges are the ones who pose the greatest threat, Scala said. The initiative began as the research project of a graduate student focused on Harford County elections, developing training modules based on the findings.

This year, the interdisciplinary Towson team has partnered with the Anne Arundel County Board of Elections to train more than 1,930 poll workers for Election Day. Judges who used one of the 30-minute training modules demonstrated a better understanding of how to prevent mistakes from happening, Scala said.

“Part of working in elections is risk management and evaluating what can go wrong on Election Day,” said David Garreis, deputy director of Anne Arundel County elections. “It’s one of those things that, in this day and age, you have to take seriously.”

The state does pretty well in terms of safeguarding its elections, and