Experts warn mail-in voting misinformation could threaten elections

Experts warn mail-in voting misinformation could threaten elections
© Getty Images

Election security experts warned Tuesday that a major threat to elections this year is disinformation and misinformation around perceived threats from mail-in voting. 

The warnings came on the heels of sustained criticism of mail-in voting by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE, who last week suggested postponing the November general election due to concerns over the expected influx of mail-in voting, though Trump does not have the power to do so. He has also raised mostly unsubstantiated concerns that mail-in voting could cause an increase in voter fraud. 

“Regardless of how secure our elections are, many election experts and officials are concerned that some voters could dismiss November’s results as invalid or rigged because of mis- and/or disinformation,” David Levine, an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy within the German Marshall Fund, testified at a House Homeland Security Committee cybersecurity subcommittee election security hearing Tuesday.

ADVERTISEMENT

“When I look at the risk that we have to the voting process, today I think that the potential for mis and disinformation having an impact on the voting is greater in many regards than the potential of cyber threats,” John Gilligan, the president and CEO of the Center for Internet Security, testified at the same hearing. 

Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and the former Colorado elections director, testified that due to officials “casting doubt without evidence” on mail-in voting, “combatting disinformation and misinformation is a critical aspect of election officials’ work.” 

Both Levine and McReynolds pointed to an assessment on the potential security risks of mail-in voting released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) late last week. 

The assessment found that while “all forms of voting” present some level of risk from interference, the risks stemming from mail-in voting can be “managed through various policies, procedures, and controls.”

CISA noted, however, that due to “partisan political voices” weighing in on mail-in voting, and because of potential delays in election results from an influx of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, this form of voting could become a tempting target of disinformation and misinformation campaigns for those seeking to interfere in elections.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Disinformation risk to mail-in voting infrastructure and processes is similar to that of in-person voting while utilizing different content,” CISA wrote in the assessment. “Threat actors may leverage limited understanding regarding mail-in voting processes to mislead and confuse the public.”

Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondRep. Cedric Richmond set to join House Ways and Means Committee Biden campaign ratchets up courting of Black voters, specifically Black men Buttigieg, former officials added to Biden's transition team MORE (D-La,), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s cybersecurity subcommittee, pointed to the assessment in warning of the dangers of misinformation around mail in voting. He criticized Trump’s pushback against the process, noting it “softens the turf for foreign influence campaigns.”

“I am not aware of any intelligence assessment indicating that foreign actors have expressed interest or capability to successfully interfere with vote-by-mail processes,” Richmond said. 

Experts argued during the hearing that in order to combat disinformation, states should prioritize voter education outreach efforts. In order to address this issue and many other election challenges states are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic, witnesses pushed Congress to send states more election funds, an issue that has become tied up in the negotiations over the next coronavirus stimulus package. 

“What is important as we speak about elections going forward is not to be thinking about defensive procedures, but offensive,” Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections for Common Cause, testified to the subcommittee, specifically citing Trump’s critical comments around mail-in voting.

“We need to engage our community in the civic education and inoculation that would protect them from being affected by this misinformation,” she emphasized.

Misinformation and disinformation are not new forms of election interference, with Russian agents most notably launching a sweeping campaign across social media platforms designed to favor Trump in the lead-up to the 2016 elections.

The effort was part of a wider interference campaign that also included targeting election infrastructure in all 50 states and hacking into the networks of the Democratic National Committee. 

House Democrats last week raised serious concerns around security of elections, with several emerging from a classified briefing with intelligence leaders raising concerns that the Trump administration was concealing foreign threats to U.S. elections. 

The briefing came after Democratic leaders raised concerns that members of Congress were being targeted by a foreign interference campaign, and after a top intelligence leader warned that Russia, China, and Iran were attempting to interfere in the election. 

Gilligan noted Tuesday that while states have made leaps and bounds in addressing cyber risks to elections since 2016, elections could easily be undermined by misleading information. 

“As we all know, it wasn’t just that the vote was cast and counted properly, it’s what’s the confidence level that the American public has in the system,” Gilligan said.