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Election Officials To Convene Amid Historic Focus On Voting And Interference

Then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann electronically cast his ballot in Jackson, Miss., on Nov. 5, 2019.
Rogelio V. Solis
Then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann electronically cast his ballot in Jackson, Miss., on Nov. 5, 2019.

Top election officials from all 50 states are meeting in Washington this week to prepare for 2020 — a gathering amid widespread concern over whether the upcoming elections will be fair and accurate, as well as free of the kind of foreign interference that marred the 2016 campaign.

Despite major government efforts to upgrade security, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that about 41% of Americans surveyed do not think the country is prepared to protect the U.S. election system from another attack.

Voters also say their biggest concern is disinformation, followed by voter fraud and voter suppression. Forty-four percent think it's likely that many votes will not actually be counted in 2020.

While most voters have confidence in their state and local governments to run a fair election, 43% do not think those officials have done enough to make sure that there's no foreign interference.

Many more blame President Trump. Fifty-six percent say he has done little or nothing to keep the elections safe. A slim majority think the president, who has repeatedly questioned Russian tampering in 2016, actually encourages foreign interference.

This lack of voter confidence has unnerved lower-level election officials as the nation heads into what's expected to be a highly contentious presidential race with high levels of turnout.

"My biggest concern in 2020 is that regardless of outcome, we will be faced with somewhere around the end of the first week in November, this concern by half of the country that they lost the election illegitimately, " says Colorado Election Director Judd Choate.

Choate is one of the officials who will be gathering in Washington to discuss ways to address the threat.

Gamut of fears

Most of those who run elections believe the biggest danger is not someone tampering with actual votes — although that is a concern — but causing enough confusion to undermine public trust in the process.

Officials are preparing for a range of possibilities, including disruption of voter registration systems, social media disinformation campaigns, ransomware attacks and even power outages.

But Choate and other officials hope a number of changes made since 2016 will help boost voter confidence.

States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars beefing up security and purchasing new voting equipment. Some 90% of voters, many more than in 2016, will cast their votes on paper ballots, which are immune from cyber-mischief and can be audited later to verify that results were accurate.

Election officials have also been working closely with the U.S. intelligence community and other federal agencies to tighten security and share information about potential threats.

Christopher Krebs, leader of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security — charged with helping to secure the nation's election infrastructure — says he isn't surprised that voters are worried about what might happen this year.

But Krebs thinks they should be more confident than some say they are.

"The federal government is working together on this singular issue, election security, frankly better than any other issue that I've ever seen," he says.

The red team

Cliff Smith, a Ridgeland, Miss., poll worker, offered an "I Voted" sticker in Jackson, Miss., on Election Day in 2019.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP
Cliff Smith, a Ridgeland, Miss., poll worker, offered an "I Voted" sticker in Jackson, Miss., on Election Day in 2019.

Officials at all levels of government have conducted countless training sessions, vulnerability assessments and tabletop exercises since 2016. Another tabletop training is scheduled with top state election officials this week in Washington.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose says he's on the phone with federal security officials almost every day.

"Whether it's myself personally or a member of our IT team, we work with DHS hand in glove," he says.

Security preparations have involved all partners in elections, including voting equipment vendors, which are also seen as potential targets.

Sam Derheimer, director of government affairs for Hart InterCivic, one of the main suppliers of voting equipment in the country, recalls an incident last year that he says illustrates the improvement in coordination.

One of the company's customers, an election official in a small Texas county, received a phone call from someone pretending to be from Hart who asked about sensitive security measures and tried to get the official to log into unfamiliar websites.

"She didn't know the person on the other side of the phone, and red flags were raised immediately," says Derheimer.

The local official immediately called the company with her concerns. Hart then contacted the Department of Homeland Security, which issued an alert through an information-sharing group that includes election officials and vendors around the country.

"It really laid out the incident as best we knew it — what had occurred and what to be wary of in the future," says Derheimer, "because if it happened to this one local election official, it easily could have occurred to others."

It turns out that the woman was unknowingly the target of a security firm hired by her county to test its cyberdefenses. For those who run elections, the quick national response was a promising sign that everyone is much more attuned to potential threats than they have been in the past.

"An election official — [who] three or four years ago would have probably just blindly and blithely followed the instructions — now is like, 'Wait a second. That doesn't sound right,' " says Krebs.

Spreader of doubt

Still, the push to tighten election security and boost public confidence has been complicated by Trump's downplaying of the foreign threat and his repeated claims, without evidence, that voter fraud is rampant.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff thinks Trump's remarks are "unhelpful" — imagine, he asked, how much difference it might make if the president were on the same page as his advisers and local election officials.

"A president who got out there and really encouraged investment in the security would be again a positive factor." But, adds Chertoff, "I think that it's not deterring the people who are actually doing the work from carrying it out."

Shelby Pierson, the election threats executive within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was asked by NPR point-blank whether she has to try to work around Trump. No, she said.

And for his part, Krebs insists that he has all the support and guidance he needs from the White House to do his job.

"We all know what's at stake here," he says. "And it's defending democracy. It's protecting 2020, and I think the American people need to have confidence that we take this seriously."

Krebs warns, though, that there's no such thing as 100% security and that the threat is evolving. While Russians conducted the attacks in 2016, intelligence officials expect that attacks this year could come from others as well, including Iran, China or some domestic player.

Krebs says voters also have a security role to play by making sure they know where to vote and how and what their rights are if something does go wrong at the polling place.

He also says voters should make sure they get their information about elections from trusted sources and not believe everything they see on social media.

"We've got to be prepared and resilient as a people, as a democracy, as voters, to not let someone else, not let the Russians, not let the Iranians, not let someone else decide the outcome of this election," he says. "American voters should decide American elections, and that's why we're putting as much effort into this as we are."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.