A Topical Look at the U.S. Election Security

"The director for the Cyber Division of the DHS recently estimated that 92% of voters will vote on paper ballots that can be audited," Levine said.

David Levine, an Election Integrity Fellow at Alliance for Securing Democracy, has disclosed that foreign adversaries are trying to interfere in the United States’ 2020 presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Speaking on ‘Election Security’ during the 2020 U.S. Visual Reporting Tour (VRT), Levine, in a PowerPoint presentation informed participating media institutions that on September 10, 2020, Microsoft reported that it was seeing increasing cyber-attacks originating in Russia, China and Iran, targeting its customers, including attacks against political groups and the presidential campaigns of President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“In a blog post, Microsoft detailed efforts by three major foreign hacking groups to target the campaigns along with other political organizations, individuals, and think tanks; including the one I worked for, the German Marshall fund of the United States,” he said.

According to him, 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.

“The warning from Microsoft is a reminder that our election systems must be resilient against unforeseen problems that are likely to arise during the 2020 presidential election,” Levine told participants during the VRT, adding that the warning is consistent with U.S. Department of Homeland Security communications on election security threats, including its recently published Homeland Threat Assessments.

“Unlike many other countries,” he said, “the administration of elections in the U.S. is highly decentralized. Elections are primarily administered by thousands of state and local systems rather than a single unified national system.”

Levine said at the federal level, Congress has the authority to regulate elections, which derives from various legal resources depending on the type of election adding that congress has passed legislation in the major functional areas of the voting process, such as voter registration and prohibitions against discrimination.

He said periodically authorized appropriations or appropriated funds are provided to help States upgrade voting equipment and strengthen election security, noting that additionally, federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), offer states assistance such as consultations and investigations on election security issues.

Making reference to the 2016 presidential elections, Levine said following the U.S. election, the DHS provided the critical designation for U.S. election infrastructure, which permits the DHS to prioritize support for state and local election jurisdictions including information sharing on threats, monitoring election systems, conducting vulnerability assessments, and providing assistance on identifying or responding to threats.

“That said, the role for state and federal elections resides primarily with each state and no state administers elections in exactly the same way as another state. States regulate many aspects of elections, including the process to register to vote, the process with regards to mail balloting, as well as early voting requirements, which is of course the process of voting in-person on election day before November 3rd in this case, which many but not all States have, as well as of course, election day procedures,” Levine told journalists.

He disclosed that within each state, responsibility for managing, planning and conducting elections is largely a local process with over 8,000 local election jurisdictions nationwide adding that some States have mandated election administration guidelines and procedures for the count of elections.

“Whereas other States have guidelines that give generally local jurisdictions considerable autonomy and discretion in the way they administer elections. The result is that elections can be administered differently across States and local jurisdictions. Some of the things that local election officials commonly do is registering eligible voters, educating voters on how you use voting technology, providing information on the candidates and ballot measures that would be on their ballots, recruiting training, and mobilizing the workers that would be working at the polling places on election day, as well as preparing and testing the voting equipment and counting the ballots that are used within the localities in their state,” Levine said.

He named the closing and opening of polling places, checking in voters and verifying that they are eligible to vote when they come vote, and providing opportunities for voters to cast and mark their ballots as elections day activities, while post-election activities include securing the voting equipment and the ballots once the polls have closed, publishing unofficial results on election night, certifying the official election results, and performing things such as recounts if required.

“There was a September 22, 2020 public service announcement from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security that noted an awareness that foreign adversaries could attempt to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 elections in an effort to discredit the electoral process and undermine U.S. democratic institutions,” Levine said.

Levine said state and local officials typically require several days to weeks to certify election final results in order to ensure that every legally cast vote is accurately counted adding that there is increased use of mail ballots due to COVID-19 protocols, coronavirus pandemic, could leave officials with incomplete results on election night.

He told journalists that foreign actors could exploit the time required to certify and announce election results by sharing information that includes reports of voter suppression, cyber-attacks, targeting election infrastructure, election fraud, and other problems with the intent to convince the public of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the elections.

Levine said voters should feel confident that safeguards are in place to protect their votes from cyber-attacks and technical problems that could arise for the November 2020 presidential election noting that there are still some opportunities for States to make their systems even more robust between now and November.

He informed media workers that since the 2020 presidential election, including the last few months, there has been substantial progress made to implement the kind of backup and security features that should allow all voters to cast ballots that will be counted even in the event of a successful cyber-attack or other unforeseen system failures.

“The director for the Cyber Division of the DHS recently estimated that 92% of voters will vote on paper ballots that can be audited. And even in jurisdictions that use paperless machines, increased demand for mail-in voting due in part because of the Coronavirus will likely lead to even more voters voting on a paper ballot,” said Levine.

Levine said the U.S. election system is more resilient because, even though many voters will be a record number that vote by mail this election, there are also going to be a large number that are expected to vote in person and 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.

Role of Social Media

Ms. Joanna Weiss, Contributing Editor, Politico Magazine, speaking during the zoom meeting on the “Role of TV ads and Social Media during the U.S. elections,” said on every level, from people running for town council to running for president, advertising is paid for by the candidates.

Ms. Weiss said there is no state TV that provides any free space for ads disclosing that some ads are paid for by the campaigns themselves.

She said some ads are paid for by third-party groups, which include these political action committees (PAC), known as super PACs. They are set up to support a candidate or a cause, but they are not run by the campaign. ”They are not supposed to coordinate with the campaign, they do not have the same fundraising restrictions as a campaign, and they pour a lot of money into advertising as well.”

“In some cases,” she said, “basically there are limits to how much money you can raise, but there are no limits to how much money you can spend on advertising. And this is a big country and you can spend a lot of money on advertising because advertising is the best way to reach a lot of people, and it has gotten much more sophisticated over the years in terms of tactics and targeting,” Ms. Weiss told Journalists.

Ms. Weiss said “in terms of content, it really still comes down to one thing, and that is emotion. And the emotion that is very often played to is fear. So I wanted to show you a very famous TV ad that really set the standard for how to reach voters through fear.”

Presidential campaign ad by Lyndon B. Johnson against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

She said there was an ad run by Lyndon Johnson, who had been John F Kennedy’s vice president when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. So in 1964, Johnson ran for president again, he wanted to remain president; his opponent was a Republican named Barry Goldwater and Barry Goldwater favored a very active, aggressive military who had said that he would be willing in some circumstances to use nuclear weapons, and so the Johnson campaign put together this ad telling voters “You will make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die. Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

“An ad about foreign policy, this is an ad about emotion and it used the sophisticated filmmaking techniques. A lot of work went into the sound editing of that ad. A really interesting thing about that ad is that it ran on television exactly one time, just once, and people went into such a panic and politicians complained, and the Johnson campaign pulled the ad, but the ad gave the campaign what campaigns know as earned media, which means that TV shows and newspaper columnists are talking about your message and sometimes replaying your message and repeating your message and you do not have to pay for it. And Lyndon Johnson won by a huge margin in that election,” Ms. Weiss said.

However, fear is not the only emotion that advertisers use to good effect in TV ads, she told the journalists.


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