Xi Jinping Says He Is Preparing China for War
The World Should Take Him Seriously
The 2016 presidential election made clear that American democracy is vulnerable to interference by foreign adversaries. In response, officials at all levels of government moved quickly to strengthen protections for the vote. In 2020, the danger of domestic attacks came into greater focus, with the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol in 2021 serving as a frightening wake-up call. The antidemocratic and violent forces unleashed that day have not faded away. Instead, the threat has metastasized. For the past two years, prominent voices have continued to spread lies about the electoral system and the results of the 2020 election. Election workers have experienced ongoing harassment and violence. There have also been instances of “insider threats,” where a small number of election workers have themselves propagated false election information and taken actions that directly threaten election integrity.
The good news is that the 2022 congressional midterms stalled the momentum of those denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Election deniers running to take over election administration in battleground states mostly lost their races, and across the country, voting was remarkably peaceful.
Despite this outcome, it would be foolish to believe the danger has passed. Election deniers continue to work in some election offices around the country, and in 2022, they won more than 170 races for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and key statewide offices. Powerful figures, including former President Donald Trump and pundits with millions of followers and viewers, continue to undermine the public’s confidence in U.S. elections. Abroad, countries with massive resources have the motive and means to interfere in future contests. If anything, the heightened geopolitical stakes raised by the war in Ukraine and other global flash points will increase their interest in meddling in 2024. Elections have in many ways become a battlefield in a contest over global order.
With the next U.S. presidential election on the horizon, now is the time to further shore up the system’s defenses against threats foreign and domestic to help ensure that the democratic process is protected when Americans go to the polls in November 2024.
A poll released in September 2022 showed that as many as one-third of American adults still do not trust the results of the 2020 election. The continued widespread dissemination and acceptance of lies about the election poses an existential threat to U.S. democracy. That such falsehoods continue to be embraced should worry all Americans.
Effectively pushing back against election falsehoods can seem like an impossible task, but Americans have learned a lot in recent years, and there are communications strategies and legislative measures that can help blunt the effects of disinformation. The first is to continuously “pre-bunk” disinformation and direct citizens to trusted sources, before false information has been spread and believed. Analyses of online election-related conversations by the Stanford Internet Observatory , the Brennan Center , and others have found that high-profile election deniers rely on the same core false narratives over and over. This repetition means that it is possible to predict a good deal of election disinformation . Therefore, election officials, public leaders, and civic organizations can anticipate false points likely to be raised, train voters to recognize false information, provide factual evidence to rebut—or “pre-bunk”—recurring rumors, and direct voters to trusted sources.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) “ Rumor vs. Reality ” resource, colloquially known as “ r umor control , ” is a good example. It provides factual information that dispels some of the most common election conspiracies. Since the 2020 election, election officials, voting system vendors, journalists, and many others made use of the authoritative source to push back against election falsehoods. Several states, including Connecticut, Kentucky, and Ohio, have since added to these efforts, setting up their own rumor control pages, hiring dedicated staff to get factual information to voters, and publishing easy-to-follow resources explaining the many steps that keep elections secure and accurate.
Elections have become a battlefield in a contest over global order.
Officials should continue to pursue pre-bunking at multiple levels: CISA should build on its existing rumor control efforts, updating its database as appropriate and ensuring that it has a wide reach; more states should launch their own efforts; and civil society groups should amplify accurate information.
Although the First Amendment prevents the government from imposing a sweeping ban on all misleading election information, legislatures can take steps to limit the spread of material falsehoods about the time, place, and manner of elections that interfere with an individual’s right to vote. In Kansas, Minnesota, and Virginia, for example, it is illegal to share inaccurate information—such as lying about the date of an election or the eligibility requirements for voting—with the intent to impede someone from voting. Similar bills are being considered in other states this year, including Michigan and New York.
Of course, this kind of legislation does not stop all disinformation. But it can mitigate the worst forms that have the direct potential to disenfranchise voters and decrease confidence in the process.
There should be little doubt that election falsehoods will play a prominent role in 2024. Indeed, the lesson for many candidates and other activists since 2020 is that such falsehoods can pay big financial dividends. At the same time, changes in the social media ecosystem, including at platforms like Twitter, may mean that efforts to restrict the spread of misinformation will be even more lax than in 2020. All the while, more sophisticated artificial intelligence technology will make it easier to generate deepfake images, audio, and other misleading or outright false content. Public and civic leaders must be prepared to push back.
The people who run U.S. elections have become targets for those seeking to undermine American democracy . In a 2022 Brennan Center survey of local election officials , one in six said that they had faced threats, and more than half were concerned about their colleagues’ safety. In November, an election official in Arizona was forced into hiding because of fear for his safety, and a losing candidate in New Mexico, who claimed that his election was rigged, was arrested in connection with shootings at the homes of elected officials.
These threats and harassment are among the factors contributing to a difficult environment for election officials, and many are choosing to leave the profession. Twenty percent of local election officials surveyed last year are very likely or somewhat likely to leave office before the 2024 election, and no doubt some of that is related to the increasingly hostile environment they face. If anything, the survey may understate the scope of the problem—in Nevada, at least ten of 17 counties will have a different election administrator in 2024 than they had in 2020. The loss of institutional knowledge that accompanies so many resignations can lead to more administrative mistakes, which only provides more fodder for conspiracy theories and further erodes confidence in the system.
This vicious cycle must be stopped. Although the United States avoided the worst-case scenarios in 2022, the 2024 election will bring more division, heightened tensions, and more potential for violence. The federal government and the states need to act now to protect election workers—and ultimately, confidence in the electoral process.
Most important, state and local election officials need additional funding to bolster physical security at their offices and, when necessary, at their homes. Congress should provide more funding, but existing federal grant programs such as the Homeland Security Grant Program and the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program can also direct funds toward this effort. Although federal officials have encouraged states to use both grants for election security needs in past cycles, the absence of spending requirements for election security has left election officials without a seat at the table in their states, and very little of this money has actually made its way to election offices. The Department of Homeland Security partially corrected this issue by requiring three percent of HSGP funds to be used for election security in 2023, and by requiring states to consult with their chief state election official on how to spend these funds, though far more is needed to address the scope of the problem.
Election falsehoods will play a prominent role in 2024.
Election officials also need more legal protections to help keep their personal information private and to help them feel safer in their jobs. Legislative proposals that would have boosted security funding and taken other steps to expand protections for election officials did not advance in Congress last year. Now states must lead the way. Some already are: last year, for example, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington all passed laws that make it easier for election officials to keep their home address private. State legislators have introduced similar bills in Maryland and Virginia this year.
There also needs to be greater accountability for people who threaten violence against election officials , which in most cases is illegal under federal and state law. But it is conduct that is rarely prosecuted. The Justice Department’s Election Threats task force reviewed over 1,000 reports of threats against election workers over the past two years, but the department has charged only eight cases.
Building stronger relationships and trust between election officials and law enforcement may help address these shortcomings. The Committee for Safe and Secure Elections , which the Brennan Center and other nonpartisan organizations support, provides a hopeful model. It is a newly formed partnership between election officials and law enforcement to develop and promote policies and practices that keep election workers and voters safe. These solutions will not resolve all issues, but they are critical to stem the tide on this insidious threat.
Since 2020, there have been at least 17 incidents in which election workers granted unauthorized access to voting equipment to people seeking to cast doubt on the results of that year’s presidential election, or were pressured by them to do so. That is a small number relative to the tens of thousands of election workers around the country. But attacks from insiders can be particularly damaging to election integrity, especially in the event of a close election.
Here, too, CISA can help. The agency should expand its insider threat services by creating additional best-practices checklists, using them to develop self-assessment tools for officials, and training the agency’s physical security experts on these materials and practices so that they can offer insider threat guidance to election officials alongside other current assessments.
States also must lead on solutions. Colorado provides one model. Following an incident in 2021 in which a county clerk turned over voting equipment to a group connected to MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and other prominent figures who have advocated for overturning the 2020 election, the state legislature passed a bill that prohibits tampering with voting equipment, requires 24/7 video surveillance and key card access to rooms where voting equipment is stored, and requires election officials to be certified by the state to ensure security training and compliance. A bill currently before the Nevada legislature would similarly require that election officials receive training on proper election procedures every two years.
In addition, states should act to prevent election officials from abusing their authority by improperly delaying the reporting of results or refusing to certify results. Michigan has provided a blueprint. After a county canvassing board initially refused to certify election results in 2020, voters there passed a constitutional amendment in 2022 limiting boards’ discretion and requiring the certification of results for the candidate who received the most votes.
In cases where officials refuse to certify, states should have a plan in place. In New Mexico in 2022, for example, the secretary of state immediately sued and obtained a court order against a county that refused to certify results, forcing the county to reverse course. All states must ensure that they are similarly prepared to act quickly, that laws governing an official’s duty to certify results are as clear as possible, and that efforts to overturn free and fair elections will not be tolerated.
Disinformation, the intimidation of election officials, and insider threats to voting systems are the among the most prevalent threats facing U.S. elections today, but that does not mean that worries over cyberattacks have disappeared. The U.S. election system today is far more resilient against cyberattacks than it was in 2016. Election officials have incorporated best practices for identifying and recovering from cyber glitches or hacks. Information sharing has greatly improved among local, state, and federal officials. And after years of no financial support, Congress provided some funding in 2018 and 2019 to help states upgrade outdated systems. These investments were a primary reason that the 2020 election was called the “ most secure in American history .”
But in the face of evolving threats, failing to improve could mean falling behind. Twenty-four states use voting equipment that is more than a decade old, which is both more vulnerable and more likely to cause problems on Election Day. And with high staff turnover, election offices risk losing substantial institutional knowledge on how to mitigate vulnerabilities.
It is safe to say that adversaries such as China, Iran, and Russia will continue to attempt to meddle in U.S. elections. The most critical federal agency in this fight is CISA, which provides state and local election officials with risk assessments, information sharing, and security guidance. As it did in 2020 , CISA should release a strategic plan for the 2024 election, to guide internal planning, reassure election officials and the public that elections are a priority for the agency, and help other government agencies and civil society groups understand where gaps may exist that they can help fill.
CISA should release a strategic plan for the 2024 election.
CISA should also shift resources to build on earlier efforts, including by adding more frontline support for what CISA has deemed “target rich, resource poor” local election offices with little or no cybersecurity capacity. Existing executive branch grant programs could also help if directed appropriately. A good example is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new State and Local Cybersecurity Grant Program , which will provide $1 billion over the next four years to address cybersecurity risks across the country.
States and municipalities must do more, too. Most states that still use paperless voting equipment, which security experts have long warned leave states more vulnerable to a cyberattack , have passed laws to phase it out and replace it with systems that create a paper record of each vote. But it is hard for local officials to transition to updated equipment without adequate funding from the state or federal government. Where there are already paper records of each vote, states must implement rigorous post-election audits to confirm the accuracy of results and demonstrate the trustworthiness of equipment. And states must continue to look for opportunities to add redundancy and resiliency to their systems so that a cyberattack cannot prevent voters from casting their ballots or stop vote totals from being accurately tallied.
Although there is substantial work to be done to protect the people, systems, and infrastructure necessary for elections, there is still time ahead of 2024. Past success in strengthening U.S. voting infrastructure against cyberattacks should give every voter the hope and expectation that the country’s leaders will be up to the challenge of defending American democracy.