When US intelligence and national security officials gathered at a classified facility in April to speak with election officials around the country, there was no burning new intelligence to share about cyber threats to American democracy.
The briefing covered Russia’s war on Ukraine and foreign and domestic sources of disinformation about US elections, according to three people familiar with the briefing.
But there was a striking change from pre-2020 briefings: It touched on violent threats to election officials that stem from conspiracy theories about the voting process.
Physical security concerns have “really ramped up since 2020 because of threats that we’ve seen to state and local officials across the country,” said Kim Wyman, the top election security official at the federal US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which has encouraged election workers to report threats to law enforcement and is hiring more staff to advise election officials on physical threats.
Many of the thousands of local election officials in the US are living with a new reality as the midterm elections approach: They have spent countless hours rebutting false claims from former President Donald Trump and his supporters that the 2020 election was stolen while wondering about their personal safety and trying to prepare for future elections on a limited budget.
At the same time, local election officials have to keep an eye out for cyber threats that might exacerbate misinformation about the voting process. It’s a new hybrid threat environment – encompassing potential physical and digital threats and how the public perceives them – shaped by the 2020 election and the false narratives of fraud that emerged from it.
“It’s exhausting,” said Barb Byrum, who for nearly a decade has overseen elections in Michigan’s Ingham County, home to roughly 285,000 people. “We’re always fielding conspiracy claims,” Byrum said, describing a plethora of emails (some of which read, “shame on you”) and public records requests in search of voter fraud.
Byrum is buying a new set of blinds for her office after hearing about election officials elsewhere facing death threats. She keeps her head on a swivel around Ingham County, which is home to the capital of Lansing and voted by 2 to 1 for Joe Biden in 2020.
“You can’t just plan for any one scenario,” Wyman said in her first interview since the Biden administration tapped her in October to lead the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s election security efforts. She’s been crisscrossing the country encouraging election officials to enlist in free federal cybersecurity services and to speak out with a clear voice against false information about voting.
‘A race without a finish line’
In this year’s midterms and the 2024 general election, the spotlight will be on election workers like never before, a portion of voters could cry fraud if their candidate loses and foreign spies or trolls could exploit the environment to chip further away at voter confidence.
“Let’s face it: In terms of foreign influence, actors like Russia have [a history of ] coordinated efforts where they are not only trying to attack the confidence that voters have in the United States of our election system and to try to sow discord and … amplify that mis- and disinformation that is out there,” Wyman said, “but that is a coordinated effort with their attacks on the cyber infrastructure as well.”
“None of that has gone away,” she added.
Nonetheless, Wyman told CNN that US officials are not currently aware of any “specific or credible threat to the 2022 elections. But this is that proverbial race without a finish line. We’re telling election officials to … continue to have that heightened state of vigilance.”
Federal officials are trying to get ahead of any foreign influence campaigns in part by amplifying the voices of local election officials, hoping that they can effectively debunk conspiracy theories about the voting process that bots and trolls might seize on.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is advising state and local officials to set up their own dedicated websites to combat election-related rumors and misinformation in the hope that voters will trust their local clerks more than an unfamiliar face in Washington.
“We see that people trust their local election officials more than they might information that’s coming from the state … or the federal government,” said Meagan Wolfe, the head of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. “These are their neighbors and their friends.”
Convincing voters of the integrity of the voting system – which numerous audits of the 2020 election have affirmed – is still a tall task.
About half of Americans surveyed think it is likely that a future election will be overturned for partisan reasons, according to a CNN poll published in February.
“Voter confidence is the thing that I worry about the most,” said Wolfe, who, as Wisconsin’s top elections official, has publicly debunked conspiracy theories about the state’s elections.
As a Republican secretary of state in Washington state in the 2020 election, Wyman pushed back on Trump’s false claims of election fraud. “The polarization we saw coming out of 2020 – I’m not sure it’s possible in some ways to convince [some] people that the election was secure,” Wyman told CNN.
“I think the better place for us to spend our time is really trying to be transparent about the way that we conduct elections in this country, the security measures that are put in both cyber and physical security for securing our elections, how we are being accountable for all of those ballots that we produce results for,” Wyman said.
Another point of emphasis for her agency’s team ahead of the midterms: helping election administrators secure their voter registration databases, which Russian and Iranian hackers targeted in the 2016 and 2020 elections, respectively. Though a lot of information found in voter registration databases is public, the data sets can be used to sow doubts about the election.
Domestic and foreign threats converged in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when, the FBI concluded, Iranian operatives set up a website that included death threats to US election officials and their personal information.
But elections experts say the sector needs more money and people to deal with that type of blended threat in the years ahead.
States will need more than $500 million over the next five years to replace aging voting equipment, according to the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, to say nothing of the money needed to protect election workers from physical threats.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has 127 physical security specialists across the country who can assess election facilities for safety; the agency plans to hire 15 more by the end of the year. The Justice Department has encouraged prosecutors to pursue charges against those threatening election officials when merited, while emphasizing that a criminal justice grants program that gives states millions of dollars each year can be used to protect against physical threats.
But the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Justice Department division overseeing the grants, as of June 6 had not reported any use of the funds to protect against threats of violence to election workers, a department spokesperson told CNN.
A draft of the House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal 2023 funding bill for financial and government services would give the federal Election Assistance Commission $400 million in security grants to distribute to the states.
That money would be welcome, but election funding efforts are still falling short overall, according to Ben Hovland, an EAC commissioner.
“In the fallout from the big lie, with physical threats and harassment of election officials added to cybersecurity challenges and the continuing pandemic, it’s never been harder to administer elections and it’s never been more expensive,” Hovland told CNN. “The real question that policymakers have to ask themselves is: Are we willing to invest in our democracy in the way that it deserves to be?”
A 42-year-old Nebraska man pleaded guilty Thursday to threatening an election official on Instagram and faces up to two years in prison. Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois on Thursday asked the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to consider issuing a public service announcement to local law enforcement agencies “to ensure that they are aware of both the recent increase in these threats against election officials and federal resources for reporting and countering them.”
The threats to and harassment of election officials have taken a toll on the profession. Nearly 1 in 3 local election officials know of election workers who have left their jobs at least in part out of fear for their safety or because of increased threats or intimidation, according to a survey released by the Brennan Center in March.
Despite the turnover, there are still thousands of experienced election officials across the country who can draw on closer ties they’ve forged with federal officials, and one another, since the 2016 election to deal with the new landscape of physical and cyber threats.
“Because of all the work that we’ve been doing together since 2016 in addressing cybersecurity concerns, we’ve been able to include in those conversations physical security concerns and preparations,” Wolfe said.