Voting is one the most important civic responsibilities in the United States. In 2020, being a responsible voter also involves understanding the rules of the election, the threat foreign interference, and reporting potential wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities if necessary.
FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe recently held a press conference to warn the public that Russia and Iran had obtained voter registration information. DNI Ratcliffe warned that these adversaries were already using this data: “We have already seen Iran sending spoof emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump.”
This is the latest in a series of public warnings from the Intelligence Community about the threat of foreign interference.
In August, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina issued a public statement warning that: “foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process.”
Director Evanina explained that China prefers “President Trump not win reelection,” Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden,” and Iran “seeks to undermine U.S. democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country.”
The United States is particularly vulnerable to foreign interference this year.
The 2020 election will involve a significant increase in absentee balloting, which means a longer period to count the votes. In 2016, one-in-five ballots were cast by mail. During this year’s primaries, half of all voters were cast by mail or absentee ballot. Counting absentee votes will take longer than usual, particularly in the eight states (including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) that won’t start counting mail ballots until election day. Election results may not be finalized for days after the election, giving adversaries time to exploit this uncertainty and sow division.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security recently issued a joint bulletin describing what could happen during the days following the election if the results are unclear. “Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy,” the agencies warned.
What can the American public do to help counter this threat of foreign interference?
For starters, they can become informed.
DHS’s Cybersecurty and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), led by Director Chris Krebs, has been leading a #Protect2020 campaign for years to help defend the election and inform the public. CISA’s website provides a range of tools to help voters understand the election process and to be on the lookout for disinformation and other threats. For example, CISA created a “rumor vs. reality” site to counter mis- and disinformation. CISA is updating its reporting about election threats, including malicious email campaigns, that can help voters recognize these threats in the coming days.
Second, voters should plan to follow trusted sources on and after election day.
While it may be tempting to trust cable news channels and social media, voters should instead rely on state and local election officials for reliable information about election results. For example, the National Association of Secretaries of State is leading a #TrustedInfo2020 campaign, along with a network of partners, to drive voters to election officials’ website and social media pages, to “ensure voters are getting accurate election information and cut down on the misinformation and disinformation.”
Third, voters should be vigilant and report wrongdoing if they see it.
The FBI is providing useful information about potential election crimes, including instances of fraud and voter suppression, and guidance for reporting crimes and disinformation to the appropriate authorities. “If you suspect a federal election offense, contact the election crimes coordinator at your local FBI office, or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov,” the Bureau advises.
The intelligence community’s warnings are a sobering reminder for Americans to be responsible and vigilant in the coming days. Foreign adversaries are working to undermine our confidence in the democratic process. The nation’s polarized politics and the growing threat of domestic violent extremists across the ideological spectrum risks renewed civil unrest and violence if disinformation about the results further divide us.
All of us have a responsibility to understand these threats and heed the intelligence community’s guidance to protect the United States and our democratic process.