President Donald Trump’s continued and baseless claims of voter fraud and a “rigged” election after his loss to Joe Biden are prompting election officials across the federal government to speak out against a disinformation campaign they say threatens to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral process.
Several top officials who spoke to the NewsHour said that, despite the heated political rhetoric, threats of foreign interference and the challenge of voting in the midst of a pandemic, they are confident the vote-counting and certification processes are accurate and secure.
“We’ve got confidence in the security of the vote, the count, the certification, and think the American people should, too,” said one senior official during an Election Day call held by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, the federal agency charged with leading efforts to secure U.S. elections. “When you think back to 2016, we didn’t have a whole lot of preparation and inoculation for some of the efforts that were thrown at us by Russia.”
This year, officials across government on the frontlines of securing U.S. elections reported no significant problems in election administration, and no signs of widespread irregularities. Intelligence and military officials say offensive and defensive operations helped prevent and deter adversaries from gaining access to critical voter data or succeeding in a concerted effort to interfere with the election.
“The actions we’ve taken against adversaries over the past several weeks and months have ensured they’re not going to interfere in our elections,” General Paul Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency and head of U.S. Cyber Command, said in a statement on Election Day.
How officials monitored potential issues
For weeks before Nov. 3, and in the days since as ballot counting continues, top officials at CISA have worked from a situation room, monitoring voting security and disinformation in real time. Their 24/7 operational center includes a virtual chat room with election officials across the nation who can report suspicious activity or equipment glitches in real time. Glitches were reported, and fixed — a process officials point out is normal in any election.
As an independent branch of the Department of Homeland Security, CISA can also relay classified information from U.S. intelligence agencies to states and coordinate with local officials on security protocols. CISA says there were neither widespread problems nor alarm bells on Election Day.
“Importantly, after millions of Americans voted, we have no evidence any foreign adversary was capable of preventing Americans from voting or changing vote tallies,” CISA Director Christopher Krebs said on Nov 4. Krebs has repeatedly referred to 2020 as the “most protected, secured election in modern history.”
According to top officials at CISA, the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors, no hacks crippled election infrastructure or secured compromising data, an effective coordinated foreign influence campaign did not materialize like it did in 2016, resilience measures were effective, no intrusions of voting machines were reported, and officials moved to paper poll systems when technology failed.
“There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council said Thursday in a joint statement, echoing that the election was “the most secure in American history,” and adding that, “Right now, across the country, election officials are reviewing and double checking the entire election process prior to finalizing the result.”
“There was more visibility into elections this year than we’ve ever had before. You know, more coordination on securing our elections than we’ve ever had before,” said Ben Hovland, a Democrat appointed by Trump in 2019 to lead The Election Assistance Commission, the federal clearinghouse for best election practices. “I think all of those things went a long way to making this the most secure election we’ve ever had.”
Some credit the increase in early voting this year as another factor that wound up helping secure the election.
“It has given us more opportunity earlier on to identify issues, potential issues, and get on top of them and address them,” one senior CISA official said Nov. 3, “so that we don’t have, you know, kind of this mad dash or pile up [on Election Day].”
Why voter confidence is critical to democracy
The National Council on Election Integrity, a bipartisan group of more than 40 former elected officials that includes Trump’s former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, spent $1.3 million this week on television ads thanking Americans for conducting a safe and secure process.
“We can all be proud of the manner in which we conducted this election,” the group said in a joint statement Nov. 7. “We had record voter turnout. We had thousands of state and local election officials and volunteers — our friends and neighbors — who worked hard in the middle of a global pandemic to ensure our elections were safe, secure, and transparent. Our nation owes them a debt of gratitude. Over the next few weeks, it is important to remember that we are a nation of laws.”
Days later, with the president continuing to tweet unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and major counting errors and pursuing lawsuits in states he lost or that remain uncalled, Coats and Leon Panetta, former defense secretary under Obama, penned an op-ed. They outlined the importance of Americans believing their leaders are freely and fairly elected.
“If we allow doubts to swirl about the integrity of our elections, the winners will not be Republicans or Democrats, one candidate or the other,” Coats and Panetta wrote. “The only winners will be Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ali Khamenei, and those despots who seek to dismantle and destroy the democratic order.”
According to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll on Nov. 9, 70 percent of Republicans now believe the 2020 election was not free and fair. Conversely, 90 percent of Democrats said they trust the electoral process; up from 52 percent before Election Day.
The ongoing threat of disinformation
Correcting misinformation and disinformation remains a challenge for election professionals across the federal, state and local levels of government.
Ahead of the 2020 race, several lawmakers re-introduced The Honest Ads Act, originally drafted in 2017 in response to Russia’s purchasing of social media ads meant to influence the 2016 election. The act, co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., attempted to deter foreign interference in future U.S. elections by improving the transparency of online political ads.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not allow the bill to come to a vote on the Senate floor, worrying some experts who saw the lack of infrastructure as leaving an opening for foreign actors.
But Nina Jankowicz, author of “How to Lose the Information War,” says domestic disinformation is equally as challenging: “Until we recognize that domestic and foreign disinformation are part of the same ecosystem, we will continue to be on the back foot.”
False claims meant to undermine confidence in the election are not new from Trump. In 2017, after defeating Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he falsely claimed that he lost the popular vote — by 3 million votes — because of non-citizens voting.
Trump went on to create a presidential commission on voting integrity, headed by Kris Kobach, an immigration hard-liner and a former Kansas secretary of state. The commission, like others before it, found no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Krebs, who was appointed by Trump to lead CISA, said the agency is dedicated to combatting disinformation in real time.
“There’s going to be a lot of noise in the next week-and-a-half or so,” Krebs told The PBS NewsHour in October. “And what we have done … is try to identify some of these possible issues, and then give the American people the facts.”
“If they’re presented with these claims, these sensational, unverified claims, they can think, you know what, I was expecting this, and it’s just not true.”
Since Biden was named president-elect, Trump has tweeted out numerous allegations of voter fraud, ballot tampering, and counting errors. His personal lawyer, Rudy Guiliani, has repeated the false claim that dead people were sent ballots that were filled out by others and counted in states like Pennsylvania.
CISA, which is continually updating its rumor control website, rebuked that. On the agency’s rumor control page, it states: “Voter registration list maintenance and other election integrity measures protect against voting illegally on behalf of deceased individuals.”
Since Election Day, many of the president’s claims have either been struck down, labeled misleading, or shown by media and officials to be extreme exaggerations of minor glitches and other inconsistencies that were quickly remedied. At least 59 of Trump’s tweets or retweets have been flagged by Twitter as misleading or disputed since Nov. 3.
Election officials and disinformation experts say increased polarization and domestic disinformation make adversaries’ jobs easier. And while the U.S. was successful in deterring foreign interference this time around, the threat of disinformation exists domestically in Trump’s willingness to cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process.
“It’s really a disservice to our country and to our democracy to politicize the process, to make baseless claims about fraud for no reason other than your own political benefit,” said Hovland, who has worked in election administration for more than 20 years. “We saw such a smooth election this year.”
Nick Schifrin contributed reporting.