CASPER – The Wyoming secretary of state’s office says the state’s biggest threat to election security this year is not foreign interference or the risk of voters contracting COVID-19 at the polling place but rather misinformation spread by Wyoming residents themselves.
Though the national concern has centered on the pandemic and the potential for foreign influences, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan said Wednesday that his biggest concern in maintaining the integrity of next week’s general election is the rumors and speculation circulating on social media platforms like Facebook.
“We have mechanisms in place where we are constantly monitoring social media for disinformation, misinformation, because that’s really been the biggest threat we’ve seen this election cycle,” Buchanan said in a news briefing about the safety protocols his office has put in place for Tuesday.
“You have a lot of third-party groups — who do I think their heart is in the right place — but they give conflicting information or wrong information about voter registration, where to go to vote, what types of ways you can vote, etc. And so there’s a lot of misinformation out there that confuses people.”
While the intangible influences on this year’s elections have proven challenging, what the state can control — the actual experience for voters at the polls — is expected to go off without a hitch.
Like in the primary election, Buchanan said polling places around the state will be outfitted with various forms of personal protective equipment for poll workers and that ballots will be filled out using disposable pens and machines he said will be cleaned regularly.
The use of absentee ballots, Buchanan said, will likely be critical in ensuring things run smoothly, particularly given spiking case numbers of COVID-19 in communities around the state.
As was true in the primary, state election officials are already preparing themselves for a record-setting number of absentee ballots due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
County clerks, like in the primary elections, will have both Thursday and Friday to process any absentee ballots their offices had already received, giving them ample time to tally the results on Election Day and deliver a speedy result that evening.
No ballots will be counted before the polls close, Buchanan said, and no absentee ballots received after the deadline will be counted.
The extra time will likely be necessary for county clerks: As of Monday, 101,248 absentee ballots had already been filed out of the nearly 120,000 sent to voters this year, an amount equivalent to roughly 23% of the state’s voting aged population.
For comparison, turnout in the 2016 election — which was unusually high in Wyoming — amounted to roughly 58% of the voting age population.
For those voting in person, both the Democratic and Republican parties have been recruiting poll watchers to ensure everyone who attempts to vote will have the ability to.
Bound by a specific set of rules, poll watchers will be seated behind the election judges and keep watch over what voters are told about casting their ballot, and are able to summon legal assistance in instances where they feel someone’s access to the ballot is being improperly obstructed.
While Democrats have fielded poll watchers for years, the Wyoming Republican Party — in conjunction with the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign — has made a concerted effort to recruit poll watchers this year and, like the Democratic Party, has recently hosted a number of trainings on how to be an effective advocate at the polls.
The role is important for getting out the vote as well, said Susan Simpson, president of the Wyoming League of Women Voters.
“They’re not to talk to the voter,” she said. “They sit behind the election judge and listen to what a voter says so they can cross the person off their list, because then they go back to their headquarters and call the people who haven’t voted yet to try and get them to the polls.”
Though Trump has urged his supporters in a recent debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” on Election Day, all poll watchers must be registered with their county clerk or risk violating Wyoming law, which prohibits electioneering activity within 300 feet of a polling place.
Poll watchers — who need to provide their own tables and chairs, Simpson said — also need to understand their role.
“Judges have the right to challenge voters, but I don’t believe poll watchers do,” she said.