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Election officials see a range of threats in 2024, from hostile countries to conspiracy theorists

With Trump running again and already warning that the 2024 vote is ‘on its way to being another rigged election,’ election workers are bracing for a difficult year that will have no margin for error

A poll worker
A poll worker prepares to give a ballot to a voter at the Blue Ash, Ohio Municipal building for the primary, Aug. 2, 2022.Liz Dufour (AP)

For election officials preparing for the 2024 presidential election, the list of security challenges just keeps growing.

Many of the concerns from four years ago persist: the potential for cyberattacks targeting voter registration systems or websites that report unofficial results, and equipment problems or human errors being amplified by those seeking to undermine confidence in the outcome.

Add to that the fresh risks that have developed since the 2020 election and the false claims of widespread fraud being spread by former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies. Death threats directed at election workers and breaches of voting equipment inside election offices have raised questions about safety and security. Some states have altered their voting and election laws, expanded legislative control of local elections and added penalties for election workers who violate rules.

The turmoil has contributed to a wave of retirements and resignations among election staff, creating a vacuum of institutional knowledge in some local election offices.

With Trump running again and already warning that the 2024 vote is “on its way to being another rigged election,” election workers are bracing for a difficult year that will have no margin for error.

Foreign threats

National security experts have warned for years that foreign governments — primarily Russia, China and Iran — want to undermine the U.S. and see elections as a pathway to do it.

In 2016, Russia sought to interfere with a multi-pronged effort that included accessing and releasing Democratic emails and scanning state voter registration systems for vulnerabilities. Four years later, Iranian hackers obtained voter data and used it to send misleading emails.

In 2022, there were multiple instances in which hackers linked to Iran, China and Russia connected to election infrastructure, scanned state government websites and copied voter information, according to a recent declassified report.

While there has been no evidence of any compromises affecting the integrity of U.S. elections, experts say those countries are more motivated than ever given tensions across the globe.

“Election 2024 may be the first presidential election during which multiple authoritarian actors simultaneously attempt to interfere with and influence an election outcome,” Microsoft warned in a November threat assessment.

The company said it was unlikely that Russia, China and Iran would sit out next year’s contest because the “stakes are simply too high.” The report said Russia remains “the most committed and capable threat to the 2024 election,” with the Kremlin seeing next year’s vote as a “must-win political warfare battle” that could determine the outcome of its war against Ukraine.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said she believes foreign adversaries have a “greater incentive than ever before” to get involved in the upcoming elections.

“We’re going to do everything we can to be prepared, but we are facing well-funded, serious adversaries, and that requires all of us to be clear-eyed about those challenges — and for voters to also know that there are foreign actors that want to influence their vote to further their own goals and not America’s,” she said.

Election system vulnerabilities

Many of the conspiracy theories that have persisted since Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden relate to voting technology and claims that equipment was manipulated to steal the vote. There is no evidence of manipulation, and the systems have safeguards to detect problems.

An intensive effort has been underway for several years to build defenses around voting machines and tabulators and develop plans to recover if tampering occurs. Experts are particularly concerned about non-voting systems such as voter registration databases, electronic poll books and websites that report results because they rely on internet connections.

Experts have warned that a well-timed attack, perhaps using ransomware that locks up computers until payments are made or systems are restored from backups, could disrupt election operations.

Many local election offices have been moving their systems off countywide networks to protect them, but not all have. In early September, election officials in Hinds County, Mississippi, were preparing for statewide elections when everything came to an abrupt halt.

Workers in the election office were unable to access their computers for about three weeks. The breach of the county’s computers caused a slight delay in processing voter registration forms and pushed back training for poll workers.

Local election offices, particularly in rural areas, often struggle to secure enough funding, personnel and cybersecurity expertise. Hinds County Election Commissioner Shirley Varnado said it was a “wonderful idea” to have their election office networks separated from the county but would take money they don’t have.

“That should be done, but we’re in a building without heat or air,” she said.

Election integrity groups say more needs to be done and point to a series of voting system breaches since the 2020 election that have resulted in proprietary software being distributed among various Trump allies. They want a federal investigation and for authorities to force anyone with copies to hand them over.

They also worry about technical failures, noting an incident last November in which some votes in a Pennsylvania judicial race were flipped. The prevalence of false election claims has made it difficult to raise valid criticisms, said Susan Greenhalgh, a senior adviser on election security with Free Speech For People, a left-leaning nonprofit focused on election and campaign finance reforms.

“Our election system is not perfect,” Greenhalgh said. “There are a lot of things that need to be and should be improved.”

Increased protections

Improvements since the 2016 election, in which Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton, include replacing outdated and vulnerable voting machines that lacked paper records of every vote cast. In 2020, an estimated 93% of ballots cast nationwide produced a paper record, up from 82% four years earlier.

After 2016, election systems were added to the list of critical infrastructure in the U.S. that also includes dams, banks and nuclear power plants.

In 2018, Congress established the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which provides security reviews. CISA Director Jen Easterly launched a cyber defense initiative in 2021 and last summer said 10 new regional election security advisers would be hired to work directly with local election offices.

“There’s just been so much that has transformed the face of election infrastructure security over the past seven years,” Easterly said in an interview last August. “In a space where people can sometimes get pretty down, I think we should be optimistic.”

Larry Norden, an election expert with the Brennan Center for Justice, said he sees “massive progress” but also said turnover in local election offices has diminished institutional knowledge.

Just 29% of local election officials surveyed this year for the Brennan Center were aware of CISA routine vulnerability scans, and just 31% were aware of the agency’s physical security assessments.

“There was not nearly as much awareness of the services that are offered as I think there should be,” Norden said. “It’s not surprising, but it means there’s work to do.”

‘Perfect Storm’

Staffing has long been a challenge for local election offices, which rely on both permanent and temporary workers, including those who staff some 80,000 polling locations nationally on Election Day.

But 2020 was a tipping point, with coronavirus pandemic-related challenges before the presidential vote and everything that followed: death threats, a flood of information requests from election skeptics, hostile county boards and new laws that impose fines or criminal penalties on election officials for violating rules. That contributed to a wave of retirements and resignations among election officials. Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said two-thirds of county clerks there are new since the 2020 election.

“This all combines into this perfect storm,” said Henderson, a Republican. “It’s a real challenge.”

Insider threats — the possibility that someone working in an election office could tamper with systems or provide access to them — poses another concern. To address this, election officials have been boosting security around key equipment by limiting access and adding surveillance cameras.

Meanwhile, the threats and harassment have continued. Georgia’s Fulton County, a target of various 2020 election conspiracy theories, was one of several election offices in November sent envelopes containing a powdery substance that in some cases tested positive for fentanyl.

The letters are another reminder of the charged environment surrounding U.S. elections heading into 2024. Despite all the challenges, Henderson said election officials are doing everything they can to prepare.

“When you have a human-run system, there will be human error. That’s just part of it,” she said. “But we’re working hard to make sure that we mitigate those human errors and mitigate the risks and continually improve our processes so that people can have the confidence that when they vote, only eligible voters are voting, and when they vote, their votes count accurately.”

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