UNOFFICIAL TRANSCRIPT – NOT TRANSCRIBED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Foreign Press Center Virtual Reporting Tour on “Election Security” with David Levine, Elections Integrity Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy.
08 Oct 2020
MODERATOR: All right. We are ready to start?
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Welcome to the Foreign Press Centers virtual briefing with David Levine for an overview on election security. My name is Jean Foschetti, and I’m today’s moderator. Participants in today’s briefing include both journalists based overseas, who are part of the FPC’s Virtual Elections Tour and correspondents in the U.S. who are credentialed with the foreign press center. Welcome everyone.
Just a few logistics before we get started. If the Zoom session fails or disconnects, please rejoin or dial in using the phone number provided in the registration link. This briefing is on the record and the contents of this program will be recorded and made available to participants after its conclusion. Participation in this briefing implies your consent to being recorded. We will post a video of the recording of the briefing on the Canvas platform within one hour for our overseas participants and post the written transcript within 24 hours. For FPC members based in the United States, we will email you the video and transcripts. Just to note, the views expressed by the briefers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government. Participation of briefers in this program does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views.
And now to introduce our briefer, Mr. Levine, he is an Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall fund of the United States. They bring together experts on disinformation, maligned finance, emerging technologies, election integrity, economic coercion, and cybersecurity, as well as regional experts to support election security. They aim to support democratic values by bringing attention to tactics used to attempt to undermine and interfere with democratic institutions, and in turn strengthen the resilience of democracy. Today, Mr. Levine will discuss recent examples of attempts by foreign entities to influence elections and the security measures that have been implemented to combat them. He will also review recent election security issues in the United States that have been addressed to ensure a free and fair electoral process from the primaries to the national elections.
This issue is certainly one that is a shared concern around the world, and we are pleased to welcome Mr. Levine here today to share his views on the subject. So Mr. Levine will make his opening statements and then I will return and open it up for Q&A. And with that, Mr. Levine, I’m turning it over to you.
DAVID LEVINE: Jean, thanks so much for that. And thank you to the Foreign Press and the State Department for this opportunity. I’m thrilled to be here today to give this a 2020 election security briefing.
Are the slides up?
We’ll go to the first one here. Jean covered this very well, so we can go to that first slide. Let me say that for anyone on this call who still wonders, whether foreign adversaries are trying to interfere in the United States’ 2020 presidential election, the answer is clear, yes. All right? On September 10th, Microsoft reported that it was seeing increasing cyber-attacks originating in Russia, China, and Iran targeting its customers, including attacks against political groups and the presidential campaigns of President Trump and former Vice President, Joe Biden. And in a blog post, Microsoft detailed efforts by three major foreign hacking groups to target the campaigns along with other political organizations, individuals, and think tanks, including the one I worked for, the German Marshall fund of the United States of which ASV is a part.
And while the targets of these attacks were not election officials, Microsoft warned that the attacks were concerning for the whole ecosystem and made clear that foreign activity groups were stepping up their efforts to target the 2020 election. A sentiment consistent with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Communications on election security threats, including its recently published Homeland Threat Assessments. The warning from Microsoft is a reminder that our election systems must be resilient against unforeseen problems that are likely to arise during the 2020 presidential election. Next slide.
Before I get into how elections are being secured from such threats for the 2020 election, let me step back and take a minute or two to discuss how U.S. elections are administered. Knowledge I’ve accrued in part based on my previous experiences as a state and local election official. Right? Unlike many other countries, the administration of elections in the U.S. is highly decentralized. Elections are primarily administered by thousands of state and local systems rather than a single unified national system. At the federal level, congress has authority to regulate elections, which derives from various legal resources depending on the type of election. And Congress has passed legislation in the major functional areas of the voting process, such as voter registration and prohibitions against discrimination. It has also periodically authorized appropriations or appropriated funds to help States upgrade voting equipment and strengthen election security. Additionally, federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigations, DHS and FBI respectively, offer states assistance such as consultations and investigations on election security issues.
In 2016, following the U.S. 2016 presidential election, the Department of Homeland Security provided the critical infrastructure designation for U.S. election infrastructure, which permits the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize support for state and local election jurisdictions. And this includes information sharing on threats, monitoring election systems, conducting vulnerability assessments, and providing assistance on identifying or responding to threats.
That said, the role for state and federal elections resides primarily with each state and no state administers elections in exactly the same way as another state. States regulate many aspects of elections, including the process to register to vote, the process with regards to mail balloting, as well as early voting requirements, which is of course the process of voting in-person on election day before November 3rd in this case, which many but not all States have, as well as of course, election day procedures.
Within each state, responsibility for manning or managing, excuse me, planning and conducting elections is largely a local process with over 8,000 local election jurisdictions nationwide. Some States have mandated election administration guidelines and procedures for the count of elections. Whereas other States have guidelines that give generally local jurisdictions considerable autonomy and discretion in the way they administer elections. The result is that elections can be administered differently across States and local jurisdictions. Some of the things that local election officials commonly do is registering eligible voters, educating voters on how you use voting technology, providing information on the candidates and ballot measures that would be on their ballots, recruiting training, and mobilizing the workers that would be working at the polling places on election day, as well as preparing and testing the voting equipment and counting the ballots that are used within the localities in their states.
The election process here in the United States is composed primarily of pre-election, election, and post-election activities. Just real briefly pre-election activities include things such as providing opportunities for eligible individuals to register to vote, recruiting and training workers who assist voters with regards to their ability to vote, and of course, testing voting equipment. Election day activities include things such as closing and opening polling places, checking in voters and verifying that they’re eligible to vote when they come vote, and providing opportunities for voters to cast and mark their ballots. And post-election activities include things such as securing the voting equipment and the ballots once the polls have closed, publishing unofficial results on election night, certifying the official election results, and of course performing things such as recounts if required.
I just want to make a brief note about post-election activities. There was a September 22nd, 2020 public service announcement from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security that noted an awareness that foreign adversaries could attempt to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 elections in an effort to discredit the electoral process and undermine U.S. democratic institutions.
So I’ll make just a couple points about this process for clarity purposes. Number one, state and local officials typically require several days to weeks to certify election final results in order to ensure that every legally cast vote is accurately counted. The increased use of mail ballots due to COVID-19 protocols, coronavirus pandemic, could leave officials with incomplete results on election night and that’s okay. Certainly it isn’t evidence of nefarious conduct. However, foreign actors could exploit the time required to certify and announce election results by sharing information that includes reports of voter suppression, cyber-attacks, targeting election infrastructure, election fraud, and other problems with the intent to convince the public of the elections legitimacy or illegitimacy.
Just briefly, the election infrastructure, or the election process, relies on various assets and those things include things such as information, technology systems, networks, equipment, and facilities, and these assets could broadly be characterized as physical cyber human components of the election infrastructure.
Physical components are things such as equipment, materials, and facilities that provide protection for election activities. An example would be voting equipment, cyber components, or hardware and software, which include things such as computers, servers, databases, and other IT or information technology systems used in election activities.
And then human components are things such as personnel who have unique training, knowledge, skills, and authorities whose roles or absence could frankly hinder election activities. And one great example of course, is state and local election officials. In my role as the Elections Integrity Fellow at ASD, I’m regularly assessing the conduct of these elections and their vulnerabilities. Assessing them with regards to electoral infrastructure, administration and policies, and trying to come up with recommendations and work with the partners to raise awareness on threats and recommend mitigation measures that try and help ensure that any vulnerabilities that do exist can be mitigated accordingly.
The broad point I want to make, and I’ll go into a little more detail about it, is at this juncture voters should feel confident that safeguards are in place to protect their votes from cyber-attacks and technical problems that could arise for the November, 2020 presidential election. That said, there are still some opportunities for States to make their systems even more robust between now and November. And since the 2020 presidential election, including the last few months, there’s been substantial progress made to implement the kind of backup and security features that should allow all voters to cast ballots that will be counted even in the event of a successful cyber-attack or other unforeseen system failure. What I’ll briefly touch on some important steps that States have taken to ensure that voters can cast ballots even if problems arise.
One of those steps that Feds have taken is to ensure that there will be a paper record of nearly every vote for 2020. In the past, there were some voters that previously voted on paperless voting machines, and there’ll be very few of them this go around. The director for the Cyber Division of the Department of Homeland Security recently estimated that 92% of voters will vote on paper ballots that can be audited. And even in jurisdictions that use paperless machines, an increased demand for mail in voting due in part because of the Coronavirus will likely lead to even more voters voting on a paper ballot. And it’s also worth noting that voters that are not using paperless voting machines are not in what we call tipping points States or any of the States most likely to determine control of the U.S. Senate.
And when I say tipping point States, I’m talking about States that would give a winning presidential candidate, a majority of the electoral votes, or frankly, I’m also talking about those States that may play a role in the outcome with regards to control of the U.S. Senate.
Our election system is also more resilient because a large number. Even though many voters, there’ll be a record number that vote by mail this election, they’re also going to be a large number that are expected to vote in person and election officials have taken a number of steps to ensure that in-person voting will not be stopped even in the event of cyber-attacks, election technology malfunctions, or other disruptions. One example is that there’s more early in person voting than there’s ever been. And that’s really important because if there’s more voting spread over more days, and locations, and more times, that helps ensure that an attack against or failure in the infrastructure on any particular day is less likely to disenfranchise large numbers of voters. If there’s a problem during early voting, voters might be able to opt to come back later, and of course, the more folks who vote early, the fewer voters that might be affected or would be effected by an election day disruption.
Additionally, more States and localities have backup paper poll books. There’s an increasing number of jurisdictions and States in the United States that have what are called electronic poll books, which are laptops or computers the poll workers are using instead of paper lists to look up voters. And those can help process voters more quickly. But in the event that those e-poll books or electronic poll books become inoperable, what we’ve seen is that the vast majority of States, including those tipping point States have a backup paper process so that voting can continue uninterrupted even if those electronic poll books go down. If voting machines were to go down, we see the vast majority of States, including tipping point States having backup or emergency paper ballots in place, so that again, we can have a situation where voters can continue to cast ballots in an uninterrupted manner, and the likelihood of there being delays, if electronic voting systems go down again is smaller. Next slide.
I think, another thing that’s worth noting, is that we’ve seen mail ballot improvements that have taken place across the country as well. One of the things I think is really important is even in spite of some issues that have been reported regarding the United States postal service, we’ve seen a number of States that have implemented online ballot request portals. And those frankly are really important because they allow voters to request ballots, which frankly gets the post office out of the first step of that process. What it in fact allows folks to do is instead of voters having to make a request by mail to get a mail in ballot, they instead do that electronically. And that cuts down the amount of time it takes to vote a mail in ballot.
Additionally, more and more States have valid tracking tools, which allow voters to be able to track where their mail ballot process is with regards to the USPS system, and that’s really important because that allows voters to confirm if their ballot has been sent out to them. If in fact it’s been accepted or been received by election officials, and then whether it’s subsequently been accepted and that helps inform them as to whether or not they may have to go vote in person on election day.
And then finally we’re seeing more and more options that are being provided to voters on how to be able to submit those mail ballots. Right now, ballots don’t necessarily have to be submitted simply by sending your ballot back into the mail. In many States, for example, we’re seeing drop boxes enacted that allow voters to go and put their ballot in a secure box that election officials have security around and they can simply take, and then subsequently tabulate.
What more can be done between now and election day? I’m just going to briefly touch on these things, because I know we’re running really short on time. One of the things I think that’s really important is educating more voters or educating voters. One of the things that I think is really important is that there’s been a certain amount of… And it remains a concern, right? Mis and disinformation that’s been put out right into the information sphere. Just information of course, is the deliberate use of false or misleading information, right?
Misinformation is the use of false or misleading information, but then it doesn’t necessarily have the purposeful intent right behind it. And I think one of the things that’s really important, is that election officials and other trusted sources of information need to be engaged in what’s called a pre-bunking process or proactive flooding of accurate information about the election process so that voters have accurate, timely information about how elections are in fact being conducted between now and election day. One good example of that is with regards to mail-in voting. Of all the election misinformation this year, false information, false and misleading information about voting by mail has been among the most rampant. According to Zignal Labs, a media insights company, of the 13.4 million mentions of voting by mail between January and September of 2020, nearly a quarter of them were misinformation or appeared to be.
And this of course is a concern because there are more voters that are expected to vote by mail than ever before. And of course, there’s also been a recent uptick in Russian disinformation with regards to this. And so I just want to make a couple really important points with regards to the mail-in voting process.
Number one, there’ve been countless independent studies and government reviews done that have found voter fraud to be extremely rare in all forms, including mail in voting. Number two, in terms of security, mail-in ballots or paper ballots that are hand marked by the voter, and that’s considered the gold standard of election security because that allows voters to verify their choices and of course it allows election officials on the backend to be able to verify the validity of the election results, which can increase public confidence in the outcome.
And finally, the vast majority of States have a number of protocols in checks and balances in place to ensure that mail-in voting is secure. Those include signature verification protocols to ensure that the signature election officials have on file matches what’s on the mail-in ballot that’s been submitted to their offices, and there are a number of other checks and balances that exist as well.
I think just really quickly, as I mentioned before, a couple of the things that election officials are continuing to do, and I think are really important again, are making sure that they’ve got more paper backup processes that are in place in case election technology goes down. Very quickly, making sure that they’ve got backup paper poll books in case their electronic poll books go down, making sure they have adequate backup paper ballots in case their voting machines go down, and making sure that in the event eligibility cannot be ascertained at the polling place there are provisional ballots on hand that election officials can provide them so that after the election, election officials can ascertain and verify, in fact, the voter was eligible and that the ballot should be counted.
And then finally, of course, election officials continue to do things with regards to securing and testing their voting systems between now and election day. That includes making sure that their passwords are secure and strong and also making sure that their contingency systems, their resiliency plans, are in place so that if there are any disruptions that occur between now and election day, they know what to do and how to do it in a timely manner. I look forward to folk´s questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much. We’ll go to our questions now. I just remind everybody, if you have a question, please type it in the Q& A, and be sure to include your country and outlet there as well.
Our first question we’re going to take is from Leena Chandran from Malayarama in India. Lena asks about that ballots in voter confidence. She said, “Are the ballots scanned to ensure their accuracy at the time of voting? Also, can you speak about the level of voter confidence when it comes to cybersecurity?”
DAVID LEVINE: Sure. [Jean], could you repeat that first part of the question?
MODERATOR: Sure, the first part was regarding ballot, so are they scan to ensure their accuracy so there’s no fraud on the actual ballot?
DAVID LEVINE: Sure. No, those are two terrific questions. I’ll take the first one. So the vast majority of jurisdictions in the United States use what’s called an optical scanner and they are scanning those ballots. I think that’s an important thing for a couple of reasons.
Number one, there’s a lot of literature that suggests that having a scanning system in fact helps ensure the accuracy of the tabulation of the votes on election night. It also helps ensure that votes, the unofficial results, can be tabulated in a quick manner.
The flip side of that of course, is that by using a scanner, as the vast majority of jurisdictions do, we of course have the paper records or the paper receipts that we can audit after election day to be able to verify that in fact the results are accurate. If there are any issues with those scanners, we’re able to catch those issues on the backend.
The second question is with regards to confidence in cybersecurity. I think that a number of steps have been taken to ensure that we are in a pretty good place with regards to cybersecurity for the 2020 elections.
Obviously I think a lot of folks on this call are aware of some of what took place in 2016. We know that there were efforts to breach certain parts of the election infrastructure. We know that in some cases, there were voter registration systems that had the ability to be modified. Voter registration could have been potentially modified in at least one state and that was outlined in the Bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report. I think since 2016, a number of steps have been taken.
Number one, we’ve seen the federal government play a much larger role in helping support the states and local election officials. With Department of Homeland Security at the lead, we saw that election infrastructure was designated as critical. We’ve seen the Department of Homeland Security along with other partners provide a whole host of resources to help ensure that state and local election officials are even more secure with regards to our election systems this time around. That includes a number of things.
One, state and local election officials have received much more cybersecurity training. Two, there’s much more going on in terms of threat sharing between state and local election officials, as well as federal authorities. Three, there’s much more scanning of internet facing systems being done to help ensure that any vulnerabilities that exist can be identified and mitigated.
I feel that you can never say with 100% certainty that your election systems are completely secure, but I believe that the steps that have been taken can help ensure number one, that our election systems are in a good place in terms of preventing attacks. Number two, they’re in a good place in terms of detecting potential attacks, and number three, they’re in a good place with regards to recovering.
When you look at prevention, detection, and recovery, those three things taken together are all about election resiliency. I think the question that folks ought to be thinking about is not necessarily whether or not you can 100% prevent an attack from a foreign adversary, but whether or not you’ve got the necessary resiliency to be able to do so.
Again, very briefly, underscores the importance of the fact that the vast majority of votes will be on paper-based voting systems. As well as the fact that an increasing number of election jurisdictions have post-election audits that will help validate those election outcomes and help ensure that any issues with our election technology can be identified on the backend.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Our next question is from Yvonne Valdez from Mexico. Yvonne asks, “How, or to whom can voters report to if they suspect their vote is not being secured appropriately?” And then, “What would be the next steps to take after such a complaint?”
DAVID LEVINE: Yvonne, that’s a wonderful question. I think number one, I would encourage folks as a broader manner when they have questions with regards to the elections, I would always encourage them to look out for trusted sources of information. That starts almost every time with their state and local election officials, as I sort of outlined at the beginning of this session.
There are local election officials in over 8,000 jurisdictions that do the nuts and bolts of running elections and if people have questions about the election process, including Yvonne’s question. The first place to go to is your local election official.
If you still have questions with regards to issues such as the one Yvonne raised, I would suggest raising them with the state election official. The folks that are primarily responsible for setting the guidelines and regulations regarding how elections are conducted in their particular state.
If on the off chance, and I do mean the off chance, that you’re still not getting where you need to go with local or state election officials. I think there are third party organizations that you could be able to reach out to. Who again are monitoring and staying closely abreast of these kinds of issues.
Those are included entities, for example, such as the League of Women Voters. Who I think are really helpful on this front too, but I want to sort of underscore that its state and local election officials that are really the primary sources for this information who you ought to be reaching out to.
State and local election officials are happy in almost all instances to be able to hear your question, walk you through what processes, and checks and balances exist in order to sort of mitigate the issues that are being raised, and explain to you what can be done to try and resolve that issue. The earlier those issues can be raised, the more options that exist in order to be able to resolve your issue in a timely manner.
If there are issues that are like the one Yvonne raised, I would encourage folks to reach out to your local election official and do so as quickly as possible so that that issue can be resolved as quickly as possible.
Thank you. Our next question comes from the Canvas board, which is from Maria Laura Carpinetta from Tulum News Agency in Argentina. It’s about accusations by their president regarding possible fraud and manipulation through mail-in voting. Then she asks, “Are there any concrete examples of this kind of fraud in the past in the United States?”
DAVID LEVINE: Yeah, I think that’s a wonderful question. There are two pieces to this. Number one, as I sort of mentioned the outset. Fraud in our elections, I think there’s been a number of studies that have been done right on this both in government, as well as in the research community that indicate that that fraud is rare. A sentiment that’s been echoed by the FBI director, a number of other election officials, as well as state and local election officials throughout the country.
I think the research bears that out. It doesn’t mean that, I want to be clear. It doesn’t mean that it’s not impossible, but there are a number of reasons why that’s largely the case. First and foremost, that’s because state election and local election officials have a number of checks and balances in place to help ensure that there aren’t those kinds of issues.
I touched a bit on them before. One of those things is in many cases, whether you are submitting about by mail or you’re going to vote in person on election day, voters often have to sign in or provide their signature. Election officials of course have the ability to compare that signature with their ballot, to the one that they already have on file when they registered to vote. If there’s that discrepancy, state and local officials, and I can attest to this having been one formerly, are very good at being able to follow up and collaborate with prosecutors on being able to sort of go and take subsequent action to address those issues.
Of course, in many instances, if someone is going to try and engage in that kind of behavior, I think it’s worth underscoring that the likelihood that they’re going to impact the outcome of the election is very small and that the penalties can be very significant. Further underscoring, the rareness of fraud in our elections.
The second point that I think is important and I think I’ll try to address this briefly, is that the 2020 election, we’ve witnessed, and I touched a bit touched on this at the outset. We have witnessed foreign interference efforts by folks such as Russia, which the intelligence community has highlighted warned against.
Meanwhile, we know that there are some domestic players that have tried to undermine perceptions of the integrity of the election. Of course, when that happens, that can play into authoritarian hands and threat discrediting democracy.
It’s really important that folks write trusted sources of information, as well as people that, large segments of the population look up to are providing timely, accurate information about the election process because if they don’t, that’s the kind of information that can be amplified by bad actors and adversaries to sow discord and confusion and chaos and undermine confidence in the election process. That’s not just my statement, Bill Evanina, whose of course one of the quarterbacks of U.S. intelligence efforts made just the same comment earlier this morning.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. For our next question. We’ll take one from the phone, a live of question.
HOST: Yes. The next question will be from Santos Vilola. Santos, your microphone is on. Santos Vilola.
Okay. Let’s go then to the next person on the list. Nikhila Natarajan and I apologize I’m sure I’m mispronouncing these names. Nikhila Natarajan, your microphone is on.
QUESTIONER 1: Hi. Can you hear me?
David Levine: I can. [crosstalk].
QUESTIONER 1: Thank you. Thanks so much. One data point stood out for me when you were speaking and you said 92% can be traced back to a paper trail. That’s remarkable. What’s really up in the air? Is it just the 8%?
DAVID LEVINE: That’s an excellent question. I think it’s a tough question to answer. I mean, I think one of the things that this is sort of important about is this reflects the fact that our system right now is pretty resilient.
One of the things I touched down at the very end were some things that if states had [inaudible] resources they could try and do. One example of that to be honest might be, many states and localities are doing post-election audits to validate results. If there’s an ability to make those audits a little more robust. In other words, if they’re going to be auditing a few precincts and they could audit a couple more, that would be helpful in potentially helping further validate the election results.
I think to your question what this really tells me is that with regards to the security of our elections, voters ought to be pretty confident that when they cast about that it will count. I think that really speaks to the efforts that state and local election officials in conjunction with their partners, including federal officials, vendors, and others have taken to help ensure the security of the election infrastructure.
For me, your question is really important because I think what it does is it sort of indicates that our election system right now today is pretty resilient. I think that’s really important because it helps buttress the confidence that folks ought to have in the fact that if you vote, your vote will count, and that we can ascertain that the winners are the winners and the losers are the losers post-election.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. Our next question it comes from Emely Marcano from El Nacional in Venezuela. Emely’s question is regarding mail ballots, mail-in ballots. “How to ensure all the mail-in ballots are counted by the local poll workers? If there’s some issue with an actual vote, are voters notified if there’s a mistake on their ballot that they could possibly correct?”
DAVID LEVINE: Yeah, those are two terrific questions. In many states, not all, but in an increasing number of states, we’re seeing voters that are being notified not only when their ballots being received, but in fact, when it’s being counted, number one.
Number two, we see an increasing number of states that post-election, this is really important. I’ll just say this on election night, what will be disseminated or shared by the media are going to be unofficial election results. Those will be results in many cases that are a sample of the actual number of ballots cast combined potentially with what we would sort of call basically some exit polling. That in some cases, right, is enough to potentially ensure the outcome in terms of who win and who lost, but following the election day and in the days and weeks ahead, election officials will be validating all of the unofficial results.
In some states may in fact even be receiving additional ballots and that’s because in some states they accept additional ballots that come through the mail that are postmarked on or before election day. Number one, voters in many cases have the ability, through a ballot tracking system see and be notified when their ballots been cast and counted.
Number two, election officials have post-election validation processes that are often observable to the media and members of the public. Members of the public, media, and others can actually see the process in place and feel confident that in fact the votes that were cast are being counted and are reflected in the final outcome itself.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jackie Fox of Irish National Broadcast or RTE. Jackie asks, “What kind of techniques are being used to suppress votes in the U.S. and what can be done to stop it?”
DAVID LEVINE: Sure. Jackie, so the Alliance for Securing Democracy primarily focuses and takes a look at those kinds of issues, but with respect to foreign interference. One example of this that we’ve seen is that we have seen, is that we saw disinformation efforts by foreign adversaries, such as Russia that occurred in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. That for example, targeted African American voters and either in some instances, tried to persuade them to not vote, or in some cases potentially try to persuade them to vote maybe for voters other than whom they initially wanted to support.
As the intelligence and law enforcement communities have put out over the past four years plus, those sorts of attacks and those kinds of influence campaigns continue, and they continue, and they come in many forms. In addition, of course, to sort of these foreign influence threats, which of course are targeted certain groups of voters.
We’ve also seen these kinds of efforts take place with regards to the pandemic. We know that because of the pandemic, and this is not something [inaudible] to the United States, but worldwide. We know that as the pandemic has sort of evolved, that in many cases even public health experts aren’t necessarily certain in some cases what measures absolutely need to be taken to mitigate the risks.
In those cases, in those instances, there are information voids that we’ve seen adversaries, including Russia, China, and Iran try and exploit. Exploit again, try and sow confusion and chaos. Sow discord and try and undermine confidence in our election processes.
One of the things that ASD is continuing to monitor is whether or not adversaries will try and use things including influence campaigns to try and spread miss and disinformation to facilitate or enable voters to not turn out to vote on election day. Of course, voters are the last line of defense with regards to the 2020 election. It’s really critical that they turn out and vote. If we had complete voter turnout, that would go awfully long ways to mitigating any kind of foreign interference threats.
MODERATOR: Thank you. A bit of a follow-up to that question. It comes from Pearl Matibe from Open Parliament in Zimbabwe. Pearl asked, “If you could share an example of an incident of foreign interference with a country’s election?” It doesn’t have to be specifically the United States, but any example of a foreign interference in a country’s national election.
DAVID LEVINE: Absolutely. I think one example that we are keenly aware of because worth noting is in 2014, we saw a three-pronged attack that was carried out with Russian affiliated hackers, on Ukraine’s presidential election. We saw a situation where, and this is something that again, Bill Evanina, a U.S. Intelligence Official briefly alluded to.
We saw a situation again where Russian TV tried to indicate that a candidate and in fact won that election when in fact that wasn’t the case. We’ve seen efforts by foreign entities to interfere in that election. We saw efforts in the U.S. in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. We also have saw efforts for example in France´s 2017 election. Where again, we saw efforts to interfere and now President Macron’s campaign. So they’re very much is an effort by certain foreign actors to interfere in democratic elections and that’s gone back a number of years.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Martin Burcharth from the Danish Daily Information. Martin asked, “Which States to recommend we keep an eye out for on the days after the election when it comes to late results because of mail-in votes?” And a question on the validity of the ballots from those states?
DAVID LEVINE: Great question from Martin. I would encourage folks to look at a few things just broadly before I zero in on this thing. Number one, which states allow for pre-processing of mail ballots before election day? When I say that, I mean, there’s a process that most states have, which is when mail ballots are submitted, you can basically line up your mail ballots to be ready to be tabulated before election day.
That means in essence, that election officials have the ability to flatten out the ballots, take them out of the envelopes, put them in the secure location, and then when the let day rolls around they’re ready to be put into highspeed scanners to tabulate them.
An increasing number of states are now getting more time in advance of election day to be able to basically arrange their ballots to be processed. So that in fact they’ll be able to have many of those ballots tabulated and counted on election night, but there are states where that continues to be a bit of an issue. Examples of that are Pennsylvania, which would be an example of that.
Of course, I think that also could be an issue again, with a state like Michigan. Michigan recently, an act of the law that allowed for a little more time to be able to preprocess, what we call pre-process, those mail-in ballots, but not a lot more time before election night. I think those are a couple of states that are worth sort of paying attention to.
Another thing that I think is worth noting as well is taking a look again at what dates states need to have their elections certified by in order for those results to obviously go forward from there. I think it’s really important for folks on the call to be mindful of when you can begin processing mail-in ballots and when in fact election results can be certified.
I think it’s really important that folks should be sort of thinking about disseminating or publicizing the final results that are certified by the states, not necessarily those results that are coming out on election night because there’s a possibility that those results could change. A distinct one between election night and when they’re certified. As you’re reporting on these issues, you ought to be very mindful of that and you ought to be looking to state and local election officials for cues on when in fact the results are out of place where you feel comfortable being able to confirm the outcomes.
MODERATOR: Thank you. For our next question, we’ll go back again to a live question.
HOST: Great. Jose Luis Guzman. Jose, your microphone is on.
HOST: Jose Luis?
QUESTIONER 2: Hello, do you hear me?
QUESTIONER 2: Okay, thank you very much. Well, do you know, President Trump has said many things about the email vote, what is your opinion in about it? She said democracy in America is some sort of risk because he fears fraud by the email vote. What do you think particularly about this?
DAVID LEVINE: Yeah, well say I appreciate the question, as I think I’ve sort of touched on before, I think that mail-in voting is a secure process. We’ve had mail-in voting right in the United States since the Civil War. We’ve seen state and local election officials across the political spectrum that have some form of mail and voting, that exists. And we’re of course expecting a record number of voters to be able to cast ballots by mail. We see more voters who can track their ballots through the mail system. We see election officials offering more opportunities for voters to be able to return their ballots securely, whether it’s being able to return them to election offices. Returning them to secure drop boxes, which are convenient locations throughout their jurisdiction. Or simply being able to return them via the United States postal service.
I think it’s really important the trusted sources of information are proactively sharing what processes are in place to ensure that mail-in voting is of course safe and secure. Recently there was a video put out by folks at DHS, the FBI, as well as intelligence officials. It was a great video which was about nine minutes long and one of the things I talked about where the efforts being made to safeguard voting processes, all voting processes, including mail-in voting. I think, whether or not the process is in person, early on election day, whether the process is by mail, Americans should feel confident that each of these processes are safe and secure and that if they cast their ballots any of those ways that those ballots will be cast successfully and counted and reflected in the final outcome.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Do you have any statistics, Grecia Ortiz asks if you have any statistics on approximately how many people choose to vote by mail?
DAVID LEVINE: Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. We know in recent elections, and I have to double check on which one to be fair, but I think in the last, it was either in the 2018 and 2016 election, we were looking at about a quarter of voters that voted by mail and the election assistance commission has the data on this. We expect a higher percentage of voters to be voting by mail this upcoming election. It’s a little bit anybody’s guess what that might be. Earlier on in the pandemic, there were some folks that talked about over half of voters voting by mail. I think as we’ve gone through the pandemic as things have evolved, I think there for a number of reasons, there are a number of voters that have maybe expressed interest in potentially being able to vote in person.
That’s a few reasons. Number one, in the United States, I think we’ve gotten more PPE, personal protective equipment become more familiar with voting during the pandemic. As a result, have a little bit of better understanding on how to vote safely and securely during the pandemic.
I think also in a presidential election year, you’re also going to see a lot of people, who either first time voters, or voters who for one reason or another may feel more confident voting in person. Right. I think we’ll see large numbers of voters, certainly more than ever before voting by mail, but we’re going to still see a certain number of voters, a high turnout I expect with regards to in-person and that underscores the importance of what I sort of spoke about before. Which is about having backup paper processes, so that if any part of the election infrastructure, any of your technology goes down, you can ensure that voters continue to vote on an uninterrupted manner.
If your electronic poll books go down, which is that place where people check in, then there’s a paper poll book so that people can still be checked in. If you have an electronic voting system that goes down, you have additional paper ballots on hand, so you can vote. And so again, I think we’ll see a high number doing both, but I certainly don’t have, have the crystal ball to give you the exact numbers, at least for this government.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Gazmend Syla from climbed Kosova TV in Kosovo. Gassman asks, do you think that Americans have entered these elections more educated than they were in 2016? Do you think they know more about fake news and the different interferences that may happen in the election?
DAVID LEVINE: That’s a wonderful question. I think that in some respects, I think the American public, I do believe is a bit more knowledgeable about the 2020 election. I think that the American public, for example, is aware that there is a threat of foreign interference in the 2020 elections. I think that’s in fact, a testament to, efforts of state local election officials and their partners on the front lines, including vendors, including social media companies, including civil society actors and, and their federal partners. One thing I think that is important to know and important to point out is that is a concern for me is that I do think there are swaths of the American public, that have concerns about how our elections will be conducted that aren’t compatible with in fact the kinds of precautionary measures and safeguards that election officials had put it put in place to ensure the security and integrity of our elections.
And I think that’s a really big piece. We at ASD, we want everyone to vote regardless of who they’re going to vote for. That’s really important. It’s the number one way to be able to mitigate and counter the threat of foreign interference. If voters have concerns about the integrity of our elections that don’t reflect reality. There’s a concern that they’ve among other things may decide simply not to vote, or they’d be maybe more, less likely to do so. And in this current environment, where we have, the pandemic that’s upon us and where there’s been I think there have been an ongoing sort of series of updates about changes to the election process. Some of which stem from lawsuits, some of which stem from the pandemic, some of which stem from other things, it’s important that voters are engaged. It’s important that voters are reaching out and hearing the messages coming from trusted sources of information, so that they can make plans, if they haven’t already done so about how to register and how to vote safely and securely for the upcoming presidential election.
MODERATOR: Thank you. For our next question we’ll go back to a live question.
HOST: This goes to Pearl Matibe. Pearl, your microphone is on.
QUESTIONER 3: Yes, thank you. I believe my question was responded to thank you very much for that, I guess I can ask a follow-up question. Thank you for sharing about Macron, Ukraine and the U.S. Can you tell us exactly what they’re doing? I know these are instances, but what are the tactics?
DAVID LEVINE: Sure. We can sort of; I think the few things that are worth noting right. One is, just briefly, and obviously I’m happy to talk about these things in more detail on Canberra or after. One thing that we’ve seen as we’ve seen hacking links sort of email operations. We saw that happen in 2016 in the United States election in regard to the democratic national committee. We saw similar efforts took place with regards to President Macron’s campaign. I think that’s something that’s going to be mindful of. I think attacks on the infrastructure of elections is also a piece of this. There’s something I touched on earlier in the 2016 election we saw Russians attempt to breach some of our election infrastructure. One example of that of course was the voter registration systems.
And I want to underscore that there’s no evidence to suggest that 2016 election, that any votes were altered nor were the outcomes in anywhere modified or tallied. But what we saw in at least one state and this has been publicized that voter registration data could have been altered or modified. It can be a concern because if somebody goes to show up to vote on election day to check in, and they go to check in on an electronic poll book and their information on that poll book is suddenly either removed or been modified. That could impact their eligibility to subsequently cast a ballot and that of course underscores the importance of making sure that election officials, which they’re doing have backup paper poll books
So that they can have accurate voter registration information in case there are issues with their electronic poll book. But it also underscores the fact that election officials certainly in the United States have provisional ballots. Those are ballots voters can fill out so that election officials on the back end, following the election could take a look, verify voter registration information, and then cast those ballots presuming that the voter should have been eligible to vote. We basically see them in sort of I think examples that I alluded to of things that are things in which foreign actors are trying to breach the election infrastructure that exists.
Whether we’re talking about voter registration systems, whether we’re talking about, election night reporting websites. And I touched on that briefly, with regards to the Ukraine example, or whether I’m talking about right emails that exists with regards to election authorities or presidential candidates. Obviously, I’m happy to sort of touch on that in sort of more detail.
I’m also, obviously the other piece of this of course, is the disinformation component. Forwarding influence campaigns that actors are undertaking to try and sort of so discord and chaos and confusion. Underline voters’ confidence and that’s another thing to sort of be mindful as well. But in my role as the election’s integrity fellow, I focus a bit more on the security of the election infrastructure, which is why I’m talking a bit more about that. A little less about what goes on with regards to sort of the social media piece.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I think we have time for one more question. and this one comes from Adela de Coriat from Panama City, Panama.
Adela asks, President Trump does not trust the results of the mail-in votes. Can you explain how exactly fraud can be done with the mail-in vote? What kind of fraud can take place with mail-in voting?
DAVID LEVINE: It’s a good question. I’ve been a former, I should emphasize I’ve been a former local election official prior to this job. I was the ADA County, Idaho elections director, which is where Boise is. I’ve been a state election official in the Washington D.C. Board of Elections. I’ve been an election observer, the short-term and long-term observer, as well the supporting member of the core team for the OIC, the organization with security with cooperation in Europe. I’m a hard pressed to sort of come up with examples or way of how to commit what amounts to sort of mail-in voter fraud. I am, again, I think it’s really important to note at the outset. I’m not here to tell you that doing something like that is impossible. I’m never going to say that, and I’m always open to people sort of laying out what scenarios could exist or be done.
I am hard sure that people aren’t able to cast a ballot. Are we talking about people pressed to come up with a way in which folks could be able to engage in that kind of sort of behavior? I think, one of the things that’s really important to touch on with regards to that is what exactly when somebody asks that question and I think this is really important for folks like me. I think it’s important for election officials. I think it’s important for reporters as well as what do we mean when we’re talking about fraud? If it’s about the possibility, for example, of you know, mail carrier is taking ballots that have been cast and discarding them. I think one of the things that’s really important that the reporters and others, including myself ought to be thinking about is what the intent is behind that kind of action.
Is that kind of action being done with the intent to make making mistakes? Certainly, we’ve seen as we’ve gone through the 2020 election, and I can talk more about this after the session. Where we’ve seen issues that have arisen or mistakes that had been made with regards to the processing ballots, but that’s a far different kind of scenario than purposeful actions undertaken to ensure that votes aren’t counted. Again, I’m just hard pressed to sort of lay out how that would be done.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much Mr. Levine for taking the time to brief us today on such an important topic, on this very busy election season. I also want to thank our participating journalists and if you did not have an opportunity to ask a question, you can submit those questions on the Canvas discussion board. And Mr. Levine will kindly answer some of those posted questions for the next 24 hours. If you’re one of our FPC members, please submit any follow-up questions to the … Thank you once again for participating and that concludes the briefing for today. Thank you again, Mr. Levine.
DAVID LEVINE: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Now my colleague, Jen McAndrews will make some program announcements. Thanks all again.
JEN MCANDREWS: Morning, everybody. Just a reminder that today we will be uploading our production files from North Carolina. We have eight interviews this week, plus a selection of person on the street interviews B roll and still photography. Just a reminder to please view the videos using the streaming function on Dropbox, and then choose which ones you decide to download. These are very large files so if you download all eight at once, it could cause our account to drop off. Just a reminder we also have tomorrow at 10:00 AM our networking idea lab session, where you can come to listen to your colleagues’ pitch ideas for collaboration. That is still available for registration, and you can submit your story ideas and collaboration pitches on the discussion board networking idea lab. Finally, next week’s briefings are open for registration. We have the battleground States briefings, it’s a duo platform with two analysts on the Republican and Democratic sides, Margie Omero and Jon McHenry.
We also have a briefing on October 15th on polling and analytics with Doug Schwartz, the Director of the Quinnipiac poll. Then, finally we have countering disinformation with Kathleen Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder effect check.org. All of those briefings are open for registration, and we look forward to seeing you tomorrow for the networking idea lab. Good afternoon, everybody.