Arkansas native Ben Hovland, normally a low-key election attorney, has been appearing on some of the top news programs in the country – CNN, Fox News, PBS News Hour and NPR – to assure the American public that the recent elections were fair and accurate.
After a 20-year career in elections, Hovland, who received his B.A. degree from the University of Central Arkansas, was appointed by President Donald J. Trump in January 2019 as a commissioner with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). Hovland was appointed to a Democratic slot on the independent, bipartisan commission that allows no more than two members from the same political party to serve.
Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was recently fired by Trump after Krebs stated that the recent election was the safest and most secure in U.S. history. Actually, that was part of a joint statement from the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council. Hovland signed on to that statement as a member of the executive committee of that organization established to improve security of U.S. elections after foreign interference in the 2016 elections.
Hovland doesn’t expect the same fate as Krebs.
“I’m a somewhat unique Trump-appointed Democrat,” Hovland said. “It does cause some confusion for people. The nature of the appointment means it is a little harder to replace me, but you never know. To me, the most important thing is doing the job right, and upholding my oath to the Constitution.”
Hovland wants the public to know how much work has been done since 2016 to increase security in elections.
“We have come so far improving communications at the state, local and federal levels,” he said. “Congress has invested $800 million in election security and another $400 million to make it safe to vote during COVID-19. Those investments have gone a long way to replace paperless or outdated voting machines, to secure and harden state voter databases, and in training to make sure people in election offices are more prepared for phishing campaigns. It has done a lot to improve the security of our elections throughout the country.”
Hovland wants people to understand that, all over the U.S., elections are conducted with Democrats and Republicans working side-by-side with many checks and balances.
“Voting gets mixed-up with politics too often,” he said. “Election administration should be about good governance and customer service, not politics.”
Hovland worked for five years in the Senate, and as acting chief counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, was involved in encouraging Congress to appropriate $380 million in Help America Vote Act funds to enhance election security to the states in 2018.
Concerns have been raised that many Americans believe that the election was fraudulent. Hovland pointed out that 70 million Americans voted for Trump and many of those believe his statements. But, Hovland said the rhetoric hasn’t matched up with what his attorneys have presented in court.
“Election officials care more about the accuracy of elections than anyone,” Hovland said. “If there are any problems, they want to get to the bottom of it. But when the rubber meets the road, there has been no evidence presented of widespread fraud. It is important for folks to listen to those facts and have confidence in our elections. Georgia was certainly a close election, but those results were validated first by scanning the ballots, then by a hand count, and now the ballots are being scanned again. I hope these efforts aren’t in vain and that people realize everything is being checked and rechecked and, the end of the day, the results certified reflect the will of the people. That is our democracy.”
Hovland’s parents, the late Barbara Harmony and late Jim Hovland, moved to Eureka Springs before Hovland was born. His mother was a prominent environmental activist, serving as the co-founder of the National Water Center and chair of the Parks Springs Committee.
“What I took away from my mom is her belief that you can work towards change and you can make a difference,” Hovland said. “She worked more externally while I’ve chosen to work more internally, both with the goal of making things better.”
Hovland did multiple study abroad programs during college, and has traveled to more than 100 countries. He was planning to go into the Peace Corps after college, but before that position started, a professor recommended him for a program that gave recent college grads political training and sent them to work on a political race. He ended up working on the U.S. Senate campaign for Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan.
“Tragically, he died in a plane crash a few weeks before the election,” Hovland said. “In the aftermath of that crash, we saw an outpouring of stories from people about how Gov. Carnahan had such a positive impact on their lives. Many had stories of how he had touched their lives. His example of how public service could be used to help people was inspiring.”
Carnahan’s name remained on the ballot after his death, and he won the election. His wife, Jean, was appointed to the U.S. Senate for two years until a special election was held. Hovland worked for her in fundraising for two years. He wasn’t interested in fundraising long term, so he went to law school and got a J.D. from the University of Oregon.
After law school, his father was living in Missouri, and his health was failing. So Hovland moved back and ended up working for the Carnahan’s daughter, Robin Carnahan, who was Missouri Secretary of State at the time.
“It was in her office that I started working on election administration issues,” Hovland said. “It really just stuck being able to work on an issue that has such an impact, the idea that good election administration shouldn’t be about partisanship, but about good governance and public service. That seemed like such a noble cause. Years later, I’m glad I’m still doing it.”
Elections are decentralized and Hovland said there are different experiments going on that can impact people’s access to the ballot box. For example, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Utah were pioneers moving to all-mail elections.
“This year the election officials of those states were able to share valuable recommendations with their colleagues across country on how to adapt and deal with the record amounts of absentee ballots we saw during the pandemic,” he said.
The United States has been a world leader in modeling democracy and the stability that provides compared to dictatorships. That is one reason why the U.S. dollar is considered the world’s safest currency. Hence, the security of elections is linked to the worldwide confidence in the dollar. “Having good elections is an important piece of what America is and how we hold ourselves out on the world stage,” Hovland said.
Hovland believes the real story of the 2020 election should be how well it was handled with the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.
“A lot of the allegations or conspiracy theories that have been floating around after the election distracted from the real story: the work of state and local officials around the country to administer a fantastic election during very challenging times,” he said. “That didn’t happen by accident, but was a result of hard work by the people who administer elections in nearly 9,000 jurisdictions across the country. People were putting their own health at risk by doing this. For anyone who has concerns about the integrity of our voting system, I recommend they become a poll worker to experience first-hand how many safeguards are built into the voting system.”