Election officials prepare for new Russian interference battle

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When Russian agents interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, government officials, election leaders, social media companies and the public were largely left struggling to respond.

Four years later, as reports emerge of a new wave of interference from Russia and other nations in the 2020 elections, officials are hoping to combat the threat with far more knowledge and preparation than before.

“We’ve really come a long way since 2016,” Election Assistance Commission Chairman Benjamin Hovland, who was nominated by President Trump, told The Hill on Friday.

Hovland, who leads a federal agency tasked with overseeing election administration, said “there has been a sea change” in communication among state, federal and local partners in recent years.

The spotlight on election security has grown since 2016, when Russian state-backed actors launched a sweeping attack seeking to sway public support and boost then-candidate Trump.

The effort involved a disinformation campaign on social media favoring Trump, the targeting of voting infrastructure in all 50 states, and hacking systems of the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

At the time, there was far less coordination among election officials, stakeholders and the federal government, and less access for outside parties to classified threats that the Obama administration was tracking in the months leading up to Election Day, making it far more difficult to respond.

Kathy Rogers, the senior vice president of government relations at Election Systems and Software (ES&S), one of the largest voting equipment vendors in the country, told The Hill that the company’s communication with federal officials has markedly improved in recent years.

Rogers said that in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) informed the company about potentially dangerous IP addresses targeting voting systems by simply leaving a message on the company’s general voicemail. She said four years later, relations have warmed up.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson classified elections as critical infrastructure in the final days of the Obama administration in 2017, while the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center was founded in 2018 to help facilitate the sharing of information around election vulnerabilities.

At DHS, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) was formally established in 2018, helping to further coordinate election security efforts and to monitor threats. 

CISA has helped spearhead the placement of sensors monitoring for cyber intrusions on election systems in all 50 states, and plans to stand up classified and unclassified operations centers on Election Day this November to monitor threats or interference observed around the country.

Christopher Krebs, who serves as director of CISA, emphasized earlier this summer that he expected the 2020 elections to be “the most secure election in modern history.”

Rogers pointed to these changes as having a positive impact on the election security community as a whole.

“There have been stark changes between 2016 and now,” Rogers said. “Today, where I didn’t know anyone at DHS four years ago, I have a whole Rolodex of people I can contact at a moment’s notice.”

Rogers noted that requests for site support staff from ES&S by election officials were at an all time high for the company, underscoring the pressure officials are facing to ensure the security of the elections this year. 

“On the security front, we are not lax, we recognize that threats are real, but I feel really good about where we are as an industry and as a company to meet those threats,” Rogers said.

Concerns around foreign election interference have ramped up over the past month, following the publication of an assessment by William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, that Russia, China and Iran are actively engaging in interference efforts surrounding the presidential election.

According to Evanina, the Russian efforts are aimed at boosting Trump’s reelection chances, while Chinese and Iranian efforts are in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Russian interference efforts have become increasingly evident this week, with the publication by ABC News of a bulletin from DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis assessing that Russian state-controlled media and other groups are intentionally “amplifying” existing concerns around the safety and security of mail-in voting.

ABC News also reported that the same DHS office had chosen to withhold a July bulletin outlining evidence that Russian groups were pushing narratives alleging that Biden had “poor mental health.”

Beyond disinformation, cybersecurity threats have also been increasing.

A senior CISA official told reporters last week that the agency has continued to receive reports about the “scanning,” or probing, of election infrastructure.

The official noted that the efforts were aimed at searching for “vulnerabilities that may exist in the IT infrastructure, in this case election infrastructure,” adding that the scanning had been “mostly unsuccessful.”

Top state election officials in recent days confirmed these comments.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams (R) testified to the House Homeland Security Committee last week that while no election infrastructure had been breached, adversaries are “rattling our door knobs.”

According to the Hartford Courant, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill (D) warned this week that multiple Russian IP addresses had been identified trying to influence the state’s elections, but that “they didn’t get in.”

Hovland told The Hill that while the probing of election infrastructure was concerning, it was not unexpected and something U.S. officials are prepared to face.

“What we are seeing is exactly what we have been talking about, it’s important to note the rattling of doorknobs, but that is also something that occurs on a regular basis,” Hovland said.

“People are continuing to monitor this, continuing to take this seriously, but that is part of what the last four years are about, and of course election security didn’t just start four years ago.”

Hovland noted that while election officials are focused on combating cybersecurity threats to elections, they should be even more wary of influence efforts on social media. 

“There are foreign adversaries obviously spreading disinformation and misinformation on the election, really the best recommendation I would have for the average citizen…is to really block out that noise and focus on the basics, getting registered to vote, making a plan on how to engage in the process,” he said.

Trump and other GOP leaders have repeatedly questioned the safety and security of the mail-in voting process, with the uncertainty over voting amid the coronavirus pandemic providing an easy target for foreign malign influence efforts.

“I can’t think of an election that was in some respects more challenging than the 2020 presidential election,” David Levine, an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former election official, told The Hill.

“When you think about the ongoing threat of foreign interference, the pandemic, and ongoing social unrest…you have a very challenging environment, and it’s a challenging environment for election officials.”

With the first ballots for the November election sent out on Friday in North Carolina, Levine emphasized that voters, and not just election officials, are on the front lines of combating new and evolving threats with fewer than 60 days until the election.

“Voters need to be confident, and should be confident but vigilant about America’s election process and system,” Levine said. “It takes a collective effort to ensure that America’s election in November will be safe and secure.”

Tags 2020 Russian election interference Benjamin Hovland Donald Trump Election Security election systems Joe Biden Russian interference Russian interference in 2016 election Vladimir Putin

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