September 22, 2020

Securing the 2020 Election


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Russia, China, Iran, and other adversaries seek to interfere with U.S. elections and influence U.S. politics with the objective of dividing Americans and reducing confidence in our democracy.
  • Government at all levels has taken significant steps to increase the security of the system and counter foreign influence; while threats remain, we have made progress, and the U.S. election system is far more prepared than it was in 2016.
  • Americans should feel confident that their vote will be counted accurately, whether it is cast in person or by mail.  

Free, accurate, and fair elections are the keystone of American democracy. For more than two centuries – through war, natural disaster, economic depression, and epidemics – the American people have gone to the polls to determine who their leaders will be. The U.S. election system has been under attack for many years by foreign adversaries intent on dividing Americans and reducing confidence in our democracy. This interference has become more pronounced and obvious since 2016, as our enemies have taken advantage of new technologies, including social media and cyber capabilities.

Bolstering the security and integrity of U.S. elections is a top priority for Senate Republicans and the Trump administration. The administration’s efforts include: establishing relationships between Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity experts and state and local election officials; imposing real costs on Russia by closing consulates and expelling spies; and sanctioning dozens of people and other entities for their roles in election interference. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at DHS has taken a lead role in repairing the relationship between the federal government and state, local, tribal, and territorial governments. The Republican Senate has held hearings, conducted oversight, advanced legislation, and provided more than $1.2 billion to help states update antiquated systems, hire cybersecurity staff, and respond to COVID-19 related challenges.

The last time Americans went to the polls in a presidential election, they faced a sophisticated Russian disinformation campaign. The Obama administration belatedly understood the threat and failed to adequately inform the Congress or the American people as it unfolded. Regrettably, Russia’s interference in 2016 was presaged by eight years of feckless foreign policy, highlighted by “reset” buttons and unenforced red lines, emboldening Putin to execute his plan.

In contrast, the Trump administration issued a clear statement last November warning Americans of the threat we face heading into the 2020 election.

“Our adversaries want to undermine our democratic institutions, influence public sentiment and affect government policies. Russia, China, Iran, and other foreign malicious actors all will seek to interfere in the voting process or influence voter perceptions. Adversaries may try to accomplish their goals through a variety of means, including social media campaigns, directing disinformation operations or conducting disruptive or destructive cyber-attacks on state and local infrastructure.”

While there is more work to do, and threats remain, we have made significant progress over the last four years. The U.S. election system is far more prepared for the challenges we face than it was in 2016. As Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said, “real threats persist, but we aren’t flat-footed any longer.” 

election infrastructure

Election infrastructure is part of 16 critical systems or sectors the United States has classified as critical infrastructure. Election infrastructure presents a wide variety of “risk points” – parts of the process that could be targeted by anyone trying to compromise the results. According to a report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, elections-related systems in all 50 states were likely targeted in the 2016 election. There is no evidence any voting systems were affected or any votes altered.

In the U.S. system, states and localities are responsible for administering elections and for maintaining most parts of the election infrastructure. Election officials balance a number of priorities in working to maintain a fair process, including ensuring all eligible voters can register, receive a ballot, and vote privately while protecting against cyberattacks or other malicious activity and ensuring that the count is carried out accurately. They must compete for limited funds in state budgets with more visible items like public safety, schools, and street repair.

To help states fulfill their constitutional responsibilities to administer elections, in 2002 Congress established the Election Assistance Commission. EAC is an independent, bipartisan commission that issues voluntary guidelines for states and election officials, disburses federal funding, accredits testing laboratories, certifies voting systems, and shares best practices among the states. It has been essential in helping states update and secure their election infrastructure. For example, since 2016 many election officials across the country have used EAC funds to replace “direct recording electronic” voting machines that do not have a verifiable paper record with voting systems that do. Machines with paper trails build resiliency into the system and increase voter confidence in the results. DHS estimates that at least 90% of ballots cast in 2020 will have an auditable record. In the last three years, the agency has disbursed more than $1.2 billion in election funds Congress allocated to help states modernize their election infrastructure and improve the cybersecurity of their systems. The EAC also tracks and audits expenditures by the states. Reports and estimates indicate that states have spent at least one-third of this $1.2 billion.

The electoral process involves a number of steps prior to Election Day, on the day, and immediately afterward. Election officials must procure and maintain a wide variety of technologies and systems to complete this process. They need computer systems to keep voter registration lists current. Election officials may use any number of methods for voting, including paper ballots and optical scanners, ballot marking devices, or DRE machines with or without a voter-verified paper trail. For many reasons, including accessibility, multiple voting methods may be used in a single polling place. Each voting precinct may tally votes using the machines or by a physical count by hand, then submit the results to the next official in the chain by calling them in, entering them into special computer software, or even faxing them. Once the results are tallied, typically by the secretary of state’s office, they can be posted on a website for the public to see. Due to the large number of people expected to vote by mail, it may be days or weeks after November 3 before election results are known in a number of races nationwide.

The U.S. Election System

Election Security

While each of these is a point where something could go wrong to delay the results or introduce error, the decentralized nature of our system, with each jurisdiction using different machines and systems, makes it extremely difficult for a foreign power to conduct a widespread “hack” of the election.

the federal government responds

The United States Senate has been forcefully engaged in the effort to secure our elections and push back against foreign adversaries who seek to meddle in American democracy.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 included $380 million in grants for states to improve the administration of elections for federal office, including to upgrade outdated systems and improve cybersecurity. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 authorized an additional $425 million for this purpose. The CARES Act added $400 million in new funds to help states respond to the coronavirus for the 2020 federal election cycle, including to purchase personal protective equipment, increase absentee balloting, recruit and train new poll workers, and ensure that each voter can safely cast a ballot in the 2020 general election.

The Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal elections, has held four hearings focused on securing the 2020 elections. These have examined security of election equipment, oversight of the EAC, and, in July, final preparations for the 2020 election.

Since September 2016, the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has held 10 hearings where election security and foreign influence were highlighted, including a roadmap for state and local governments to provide effective cybersecurity, and mitigating the country’s overall cybersecurity risk.

Since the last election, the Judiciary Committee has held seven election security hearings to examine: ensuring law enforcement is equipped to investigate and prosecute election interference; oversight of social media companies and what they’re doing to stop election-related disinformation; and cyber threats to our nation’s critical infrastructure, including election infrastructure. 

The Intelligence Committee has held eight open hearings and several closed hearings on election security, in particular the threat foreign actors pose to election systems. The committee conducted a 3½ year, bipartisan investigation into Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 election. Its 1,300 page report examined attacks on election infrastructure, Russia’s use of social media, the U.S. government’s response, and counterintelligence threats and vulnerabilities.

When foreign meddling is discovered, the Trump administration is holding the perpetrators accountable. The Department of Justice secured indictments against three Russian companies, 13 Russian individuals associated with the Internet Research Agency, 12 Russian intelligence agents, and one other person involved with Russia’s influence campaign. 

On September 10, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on four people linked to Russian election interference. The department has designated at least 46 people, 18 entities, and four properties for sanctions in response to Russia-linked election interference since 2018. It used authority granted in President Trump’s 2018 Executive Order 13848 pertaining to election security, Executive Order 13694 as amended, and the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act to apply these sanctions. 

Holding Election Meddlers Accountable

Election Security

The administration has joined Senate Republican efforts to secure the 2020 elections. CISA works with state and local officials to identify and plan for potential vulnerabilities. It provides voluntary, no-cost cybersecurity assessments of specific systems and shares information among federal, state, and local partners. CISA has coordinated with state and local election officials to deploy at least 276 “Albert” sensors across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, including in all 67 counties in Florida. These sensors monitor network traffic on voter registration systems and other election software for signs of malicious activity. In 2016, only 14 sensors were in place nationwide. Meanwhile, the intelligence community assesses threats posed to the U.S. electoral system.

The Department of Defense also collaborates with DHS and the FBI to defend election integrity. In August, General Paul Nakasone, head of DOD’s Cyber Command, co-authored an op-ed outlining a new approach to competing in cyberspace. He explained the unprecedented efforts his organization took to protect against meddling in the 2018 midterm elections, including sharing threat indicators across government and deploying personnel on several missions actively searching for malware on government networks. He noted: “thanks to these and other efforts, the United States disrupted a concerted effort to undermine the midterm elections. Together with its partners, Cyber Command is doing all of this and more for the 2020 elections.”

Government at all levels has taken significant steps to improve the security of the election system and infrastructure since the last presidential elections in 2016. The Trump administration has been clear that we face a variety of threats, from cyberattacks to disinformation, and identified the tools and techniques foreign adversaries use to spread their lies, including social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The full weight of the federal government is being brought to bear to ensure the 2020 elections are free, fair, and secure. Americans should feel confident when casting their vote – whether in person 0r by mail – that it will be counted accurately.