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What worked: strategies to mitigate foreign election interference

Election security
FBI and DHS warn of foreign misinformation on election results
Yuichiro Chino/Getty Images

Election Dissection spoke with David Levine, elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. Levine has been tracking foreign attempts to interfere with U.S. voting this year, but he also knows a lot about the mechanics of running elections in the U.S. He's managed elections in Boise, Idaho, Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC.

What can we say about foreign interference in the 2020 election, so far?

There aren't any indications foreign adversaries were able to interfere with the election infrastructure to affect vote tallies, change results or alter any voter data. In one instance, Iran was able to take non-public voter data, but there's no evidence the data was altered. The interference hasn't affected the outcome, and that's really important.

The FBI and others openly acknowledge it's a challenging time after the election. There's still an opportunity during the post-election process for our adversaries to exploit ambiguities, to push disinformation campaigns or to amplify false information coming from domestic sources.

We know that Russian sources were pushing a voter-fraud conspiracy in Pennsylvania recently. Earlier this week, RT [a state-controlled Russian news service] was trying to suggest there was a great deal of fraud. Their video was flagged and taken down. The bottom line is that there isn't any evidence that the voting infrastructure has been altered, or that vote tallies were affected in any way.

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What worked well this year?

We saw more paper backups in 2020. Every piece of election technology is capable of breaking down. When there's a backup, you can continue voting. You can assure the election process continues unabated.

Another good development was all the planning for potential attacks. Election officials are resourceful on their own, but they had more federal help in 2020. We saw the Department of Homeland Security do training on cybersecurity and things election officials can do. Local officials were given tools they needed. There was outreach, training and support.

Also, in 2020, the government wasn't just trying to be aware of problems like foreign interference. They were attacking it, trying to actively disrupt our adversaries. That yielded some intelligence that federal officials were able to feed back to localities.

What were your big takeaways about this year's election?

We had high interest among Americans wanting to vote. That's good. This demonstrates Americans have confidence in our voting process. Had they not had confidence, they would have stayed home.

One of the really good things this year is that people began to see an election as a season and not a single day. Number one, during a pandemic, voting is safer if you spread it out. Fewer people at the polls at any one time means you're less likely to contract the virus there.

Number two, it's good for election security. For example, spoofed emails were identified by the intelligence community. Over a 24-hour period, state and local officials were briefed and got the information out to voters. There was a way to mitigate the damage. Having a longer election period means if there's an incident, it's less likely to impact voters. When you have voters spread out, it means election officials have more opportunities to deal with any issues that do arise. It also means individual voters are less likely to wait in long lines.

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