Observing the Midterms to Fortify Election Security

| Fall/Winter 2018-2019

As millions of Americans voted in the midterm elections on November 6, 25 students working with the Center’s Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P) observed the elections unfolding in five states across the country. The team, comprised of students from Harvard Kennedy School, MIT, and Tufts, spent the last three months learning about election systems and processes in the United States. Armed with information from D3P’s “State and Local Election Playbook” and its Tabletop Exercise (TTX) training for 120 election officials from 38 different states in early 2018, this year’s student team was eager to engage with election officials and continue providing support to the men and women who are at the frontlines of protecting our democracy. 

The student team spent election day in Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Idaho, and Oregon in order to learn about their election processes. In 2019, D3P students will provide support to these five states in conducting their own TTXs. 

Following are observations from the D3P teams and comments from some of the officials with whom they worked.



The D3P team in Idaho observed election processes at the state, county, and precinct levels. Idaho actively combats misinformation, ensures voter accessibility, and operates a paper-based election. 

“D3P has proven to be a significant value-adding partner in our efforts to improve our cyber-resiliency.  Their insight and training methods have allowed us to cover significant ground quickly and effectively.” 

Chad Houck, Deputy Secretary of State


The Massachusetts D3P team observed elections at six polling places throughout the Commonwealth. The team traveled to polls in Boston, Burlington, and Woburn in order to understand the differing needs of urban and suburban polling places. Team members expressed appreciation to Commonwealth officials for their warm welcome. 


D3P team members visited New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC) to see the state’s cybersecurity fusion cell that monitors malicious cyber activity on election day and serves as the coordination point across agencies and departments for election security. The team also answered calls on the state’s election hotline, learning first hand about some of the issues that voters faced on election day. 

“I enjoyed meeting the D3P team on election day and having them participate in our process. I look forward to working with them in developing the New Jersey Election TTX, scheduled for next year.”

Tahesha Way, Secretary of State


The D3P team had conversations with election officials at the state capital and in three counties to identify areas where Oregon has focused on improving its election security and cybersecurity posture. The three counties were a representative sample of the three primary vendors used in Oregon’s election infrastructure. County clerks identified steps their offices have been taking to improve security and public trust.

“I welcome D3P’s involvement in Oregon elections every opportunity I have. It is great to have smart people with an interest in public service work with us to find solutions.  Too often I am offered “fixes” to my security challenges without the knowledge of how elections work in Oregon.  D3P takes the time to learn our processes and procedures so that we can work together to make things better.” 

­—Steve Trout, Director of Elections


Members of D3P were able to observe the benefits and challenges of electronic voting systems up close in the highly competitive race in Virginia’s 7th District. Virginia’s move to implement a 100 percent paper backup for every vote cast gives voters confidence that the election is insulated from outside interference.

“The D3P crew’s insightful views on conducting elections help election administrators everywhere prepare for and plan to mitigate emerging issues in election administration in a measured and purposeful way.” 

Dave Nichols, Election Services Director



For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"Observing the Midterms to Fortify Election Security." Fall/Winter 2018-2019 Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Summer 2018.

The Author