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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The 2022 US Midterm Elections' Top Security Issue: Death Threats

In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections in the United States, law enforcement, intelligence, and election officials were on high alert for digital attacks and influence operations after Russia demonstrated the reality of these threats by targeting the presidential elections in 2016. Six years later, the threat of hacking and malign foreign influence remain, but 2022 is a different time and a new top-line risk has emerged: physical safety threats to election officials, their families, and their workplaces.

In July 2021 the Department of Justice launched a task force to counter threats against election workers, and the US Election Assistance Commission released security guidance for election professionals. But in public comments this week, lawmakers, top national security officials, and election administrators themselves all expressed concern that misinformation about the security and validity of US voting continues to shape a new threat landscape going into the midterms.

“In New Mexico, the conspiracies about our voting and election systems have gripped a certain portion of the electorate and have caused people to act,” New Mexico’s Secretary of State and top election official Maggie Toulouse Oliver testified before the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee yesterday. “During the 2020 election cycle, I was doxxed and had to leave my home for weeks under state police protection. Since 2020, my office has certainly seen an uptick in social media trolling, aggrieved emails, and calls into our office, and other communications that parrot the misinformation circulating widely in the national discourse. But more recently, especially since our June 2022 primary election, my office has experienced pointed threats serious enough to be referred to law enforcement.”

In a discussion on Tuesday about midterm election security at the Fordham International Conference on Cyber Security in New York City, FBI director Christopher Wray and NSA director Paul Nakasone emphasized that federal intelligence and law enforcement view foreign adversaries that have been active during past US elections—including Russia, China, and Iran—as potential threats heading into the 2022 midterms. But threats against election workers now appear at the top of their list.

“We are … positioning ourselves to understand our adversaries better, so we do have a series of operations that we’re conducting now and in the future as we approach the fall,” Nakasone said on Tuesday. “But I think the other piece of it is, this isn’t episodic, this for us is a persistent engagement that we have across time, in terms of being able to understand where our adversaries are at, what they’re trying to do, where we need to impact them, understanding how they’re getting better.”

When asked how the FBI handles misinformation that stems from foreign influence operations but ultimately embeds itself in the domestic psyche, Wray said that the Bureau simply has a set of enforcement mandates around elections that it focuses on carrying out.

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“We’re not the truth police,” he told the conference. “It’s not to say there isn’t an important role for calling out falsity versus truth, it’s just that our contributions are fairly specific. We’re targeting foreign malign influence. We are investigating malicious cyber actors, whether they are foreign or otherwise, that target election infrastructure—so cyber activity. We are investigating federal election crimes, and that covers everything from campaign finance violations, to voter fraud and voter suppression, to something that we’ve seen an alarming amount of over the last little bit—threats of violence against election workers, which we’re not going to tolerate.”

Wray added that threats against election officials are currently a priority for the FBI. “These are people who are engaging in tireless and really, frankly, selfless work to ensure free and fair elections for all of us, and the idea that they would become the target of threats of violence is totally unacceptable,” Wray said.

In a US Election Assistance Commission discussion on election official security last week, Sheriff Peter Koutoujian of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts noted that state and local law enforcement are also dealing with questions of how best to protect election officials.

“We all witnessed the rhetoric and the threats leveled towards officials … during the 2020 election,” he said. “You can see them still being leveled against election officials this past spring during local elections as well as in reference to upcoming state and federal elections this fall. In law enforcement, we need to make sure that we’re following up on threats of violence as appropriate and protecting these individuals and thus protecting our democracy.”

The shift in the threat landscape is significant. Election officials and security researchers have focused over the past two decades on raising awareness about the need for better coordination and stronger digital security protections across the diverse patchwork of local election systems that is a hallmark of US voting. But with that work still in progress and in need of funding, threats to election officials could undercut hard-won progress.

“While we are now on the right track to secure our election infrastructure against cyberattacks, new and different threats, many with domestic roots, have arisen, including threats of physical harm to our election officials, their families, and their staff," Elizabeth Howard, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told the House Homeland Security Committee during yesterday's hearing. “Not surprisingly, these threats are leading to additional serious concerns, such as an alarming number of election officials leaving the profession, which are contributing to the fragility of our democracy."

In her testimony, Howard urged Congress to allocate more funds for protecting election officials and to direct federal agencies to focus on the issue and combat misinformation about election integrity in any way possible. 

John Katko, a Republican from New York and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, summed up the challenge bluntly: “A lot of the problems with election security are generated, it seems like to me, from the internet and the ability of cowards to hide behind the internet and foment discontent online, and then make that discontent actionable by nutjobs locally.”

With the November midterms less than four months away, the need to protect election officials grows more urgent by the day, not only for workers and their families but also for US stability more broadly. As Koutoujian put it, “If we’re not protective and careful of what we do now—I believe we’re more fragile than we think we are.”

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