Election security taking front and center in 2020
The 2020 election is promising to be historical. With the pandemic still in place, major societal issues being debated, threats from foreign actors, tech company bias and clear divides in the future of America, it leaves American law enforcement at the center, tasked with the mission of trying to ensure our nation’s elections and system operate fairly, openly and without interference.
To do so, the country’s law enforcement must work to help ensure that when a vote is cast, it counts. The threats are coming from outside the nation, inside the nation and from the cyber world.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said last week that our intelligence identified foreign interference from Iran and Russia. That intelligence showed that those nations obtained voter registration data. Additionally, spoof emails that were designed to suppress voters, incite violence and damage the candidates were sent out, as well as videos implying people could cast fraudulent ballots “even from overseas.” This threat from nation states was also outlined in a DHS intelligence advisory.
This threat from overseas stands in addition to the persistent threat from foreign terrorist groups who have always looked for ways to undermine our nation and election system. FBI Director Christopher Wray has said that to combat this, the FBI Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF) is operating at peak capacity trying to identify and combat foreign influence in the elections
Independent research also indicates that the threat of violence during this election remains high from various radical groups. One report found — due in part to the pandemic lockdowns — a 60 percent “growth in Facebook pages advocating sedition” between February and April of this year from radical groups across the spectrum. Additionally, the FBI has reported that the threat of civil unrest is high due to the political polarization across America.
These asymmetrical threats leave law enforcement in the crosshairs as they are the ones that will be forced to ensure both the election and our election system are safe and secure. To combat these threats, there has been a large coordinated effort among federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure that when election day comes — just three days from now — the voting process remains safe and secure.
On the local level, police departments around the nation are ramping up efforts to not only ensure voting is safe, but that their towns are too. Departments around the nation are increasing patrols on their streets and also at polling locations.
In some jurisdictions, like New York City, police officers have been dispatched to more than 1,200 polling sites and they will remain in place through Election Day. Hundreds more will be standing by to respond to any issues.
For those in and around the nation’s capital, in addition to increased patrols, both the Metropolitan Police and federal agencies like the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service and U.S. Park Police have added gear to their duty belts to protect them in case of violence. One of the latest pieces of gear is the laser protection goggles to protect their eyes.
In Pennsylvania, a state hotly contested, the state’s secretary of state held a coordination meeting with the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office to discuss election day security and preparedness in the state. In Maryland, that state followed suit, with its governor meeting with the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office. This level of coordination will include the staffing of law enforcement joint operations centers to be able to rapidly respond to any election day incidents.
Of course, for the federal government, election day entails coordination across many federal departments and agencies. On the cyber front, the Department of Defense Cyber Command, National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security CISA share cyber protection functions. The agencies have been and will remain focused on thwarting the cyber threats coming from both overseas and domestically. During the 2018 midterms, this approach was successful in stopping a foreign governments’ attempts to disrupt those elections.
While they are watching cyber space, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI will play lead roles with identifying, investigating and apprehending anyone or groups who would attempt to disrupt our elections or the voting process. The FBI has jurisdiction of a wide range of voting crimes and is prepared to apprehend and prosecute anyone or group who violates federal election laws.
For the Secret Service, their agents will be tasked with protecting the current and future president and vice president. To do so, extensive coordination takes place to ensure that wherever the president, vice president and candidates are located, their physical locations and any events they may attend are secured.
Our nation has ensured a peaceful transfer of power since its founding and this year, law enforcement officers across the nation will be ready to ensure that it happens again.
Donald J. Mihalek is a retired senior Secret Service Regional Training, tactics and firearms instructor. He also serves as the executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.