MANILA — Foreign adversaries have been trying to interfere with the United States’ 2020 elections, a US-based election integrity expert confirmed, stressing the importance of keeping the electoral system resilient to ensure the security and integrity of the elections.
David Levine, an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), pointed out “increasing cyber-attacks originating in Russia, China, and Iran” that Microsoft reported in September.
These included attacks against political groups and the presidential campaigns of US President Donald Trump and his challenger, former US Vice President Joe Biden, Levine said in a briefing during the virtual reporting tour on the US Elections organized by the US Department of State’s Foreign Press Centers.
Microsoft detailed efforts by 3 major foreign hacking groups to target the campaigns along with other political organizations, individuals, and think tanks, including the German Marshall fund of the United States, of which ASD is a part of.
“While the targets of these attacks were not election officials, Microsoft warned that the attacks were concerning for the whole ecosystem and made clear that foreign activity groups were stepping up their efforts to target the 2020 election,” Levine said.
ASD is a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall fund of the United States, that brings together experts on disinformation, malign finance, emerging technologies, election integrity, economic coercion, and cybersecurity, as well as regional experts to support election security.
The group also brings into attention the tactics used that undermine and interfere with democratic institutions.
Russia was found to have sowed disinformation efforts in the 2016 U.S. elections that targeted African American voters, trying to persuade them to not vote or vote for someone else other than their original preference, ASD said.
Levine said that these kinds of attacks or “influence campaigns” continue, targeting certain groups of voters, as intelligence and law enforcement communities have pointed out over the past four years.
Several states, he said, have taken a number of measures to ensure that voters can cast ballots “even if problems arise.”
These steps include ensuring that there would be a paper record of nearly every vote for the upcoming November 2020 elections. Levine added there would be fewer voters this time who would be using paperless voting machines.
Voting on paper ballots makes election system 'more resilient'
Levine cited the estimate of the Department of Homeland Security, indicating that 92 percent of voters would vote on paper ballots. Paper ballots could be audited, he said.
Voters who are not using paperless voting machines are not in “tipping point states” or any of the states that are most likely to determine control of the US Senate. "Tipping point states" are what Levine characterizes as states that “would give a winning presidential candidate majority of the electoral votes.”
The increased demand for mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic “would likely lead” to more voters voting on a paper ballot, which would make the election system “more resilient.”
There is also more early in-person voting, allowing more voting to “spread over more days, and locations, and more times,” which would help ensure that an attack “against or failure in the infrastructure on any particular day is less likely to disenfranchise large numbers of voters.”
“Election officials have taken a number of steps to ensure that in-person voting will not be stopped, even in the event of cyber-attacks, election technology malfunctions, or other disruptions,” he said.
“If there's a problem during early voting, voters might be able to opt to come back later. And of course, the more folks who vote early, the fewer voters that might be affected or would be affected by an election day disruption,” he added.
More localities also have “back-up paper poll books,” which include laptops or computers that the poll workers would use to look up voters, instead of paper lists, to process voters faster.
“In the event that those e-poll books or electronic poll books become inoperable, what we've seen is that the vast majority of states, including those tipping point states, have a backup paper process so that voting can continue uninterrupted even if those electronic poll books go down,” he said.
“If voting machines were to go down, we see the vast majority of states, including tipping point states, having backup or emergency paper ballots in place, so that again, we can have a situation where voters can continue to cast ballots in an uninterrupted manner, and the likelihood of there being delays, if electronic voting systems go down, again is smaller.”
Mail balloting improvements
Improvements in mail-in balloting have been carried out with a number of states implementing online ballot request portals which would allow voters to request ballots electronically, instead of having to make a request by mail. Levine said this cuts down the amount of time it takes to vote a mail-in ballot.
More states have also tracking tools, which allow voters to track where their mail ballot process in the United States Postal Service system, allowing voters to confirm if their ballot has been sent out to them or have been accepted or received by election officials. Levine said this helps inform voters whether they may have to vote in-person on election day.
There are also more options on how voters may submit mail ballots, with drop boxes set up in a number of states so that they need not send their ballot back through mail.
Levine stressed the importance of voter’s education amid the spread of misinformation and disinformation, and the need to proactively “flood” accurate and timely information on the elections.
He noted “a recent uptick in Russian disinformation” about mail balloting, with more voters that are expected to vote by mail than ever before.
He said government and independent studies and reviews have found voter fraud to be rare, including in-mail balloting.
Mail-in ballots or paper ballots hand marked by the voter is considered “the gold standard of election security” since it allows voters to verify their choices and election officials on the backend to verify the validity of the election results.
Levine said this “can increase public confidence in the outcome” of the polls.
A majority of states have also laid out a number of protocols in checks and balances to ensure that mail-in voting is secure, which includes signature verification protocols.
Election officials continue to secure and test voting systems between now and election day, making sure that passwords are secure and strong, and contingency and resiliency plans are in place.
Prevention, detection, and recovery
Since efforts to breach voter registration systems in the 2016 elections, the US federal government, through the Department of Homeland Security, has provided resources to state and local election officials, receiving more cybersecurity training.
There is also the sharing of information on threats between state and local election officials, as well as federal authorities, Levine said.
“I feel that you can never say with 100 percent certainty that your election systems are completely secure. But I believe that the steps that have been taken can help ensure, number one, that our election systems are in a good place in terms of preventing attacks; number two, they're in a good place in terms of detecting potential attacks; and, number three, they're in a good place with regard to recovering,” he said.
He stressed the importance of having paper-based voting systems, with an “increasing number” of election jurisdictions set to undertake post-election audits that will help validate election outcomes and “help ensure that any issues with our election technology can be identified on the backend.”
“When you look at prevention, detection, and recovery, those three things taken together are all about election resiliency. I think the question that folks ought to be thinking about is not necessarily whether or not you can 100% prevent an attack from a foreign adversary, but whether or not you've got the necessary resiliency to be able to do so.”