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How secure are the midterm elections?

Concerns about foreign influences, voter fraud and voter suppression have been prominent this year. William Brangham talks with national security expert Juliette Kayyem, who previously served in the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, about the security of our voting processes this Election Day.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Voters cast their ballots today in the first national election since 2016.

    There were reports of long lines, problems with older voting machines, and a spate of bad weather across the East Coast.

    William Brangham is up in our newsroom with the latest on how the vote has been going today — William.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    In addition to the mishaps you mentioned, there is, of course, the ever-present concern that our voting system could be vulnerable to hacking or to tampering.

    Juliette Kayyem is a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, and she's also the author of the book "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland."

    Juliette, thank you very much for being here.

    We have heard the usual sets of mishaps about this election so far, older voting machines, bad weather, lots of long lines, poll stations not opening when they are supposed to.

    On the other front, I know that there are a lot of federal agencies that are looking out for whether there's more malicious activity going on, hacking of any sort.

    I know you have been listening in on some briefings that they have been happening. What have you heard so far?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    So, I would put this whole issue about voting into four different columns right now for everyone.

    So, the first is hacking. The thing we fear the most are the Russians getting in and changing votes. We're seeing no evidence of that. There's more activity. People are looking in and, you know, sort of on Web sites and stuff, but nothing that is viewed as nefarious. So, that's the good news.

    The second pool is fake news and misinformation. Your polling both is closed. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is at this polling place, so don't go there if you are worried about your immigration status. Facebook, Twitter, and others have over the last week tried to bring down some of those sites. It ends up being a little bit Whac-A-Mole. They see something and then take it off. It's always responsive.

    And that's something that we know that the Russians are very, very much engaged with today. And it's a sort of systematic challenge for those social media platforms.

    The third piece that we saw — and we saw the president sort of play this game — is allegations of voter fraud to be used to basically disenfranchise people. So when the president tweeted out about, you know, there's going to be police at polling areas making sure that you lawfully are voting, it's sort of a threatening thing that is meant to mute voter enthusiasm.

    And then the fourth, as you led in, is just the technological issues that we're seeing. They're common. We have seen them before. Sometimes, social media amplifies stuff. But some of the stuff we're reading about now in Georgia and elsewhere, it's just — a modern nation should be able to vote with a little bit more confidence than what we're seeing right now.

    So, that is sort of the lay of the land in a nutshell.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's unpack one of those things that you just mentioned there, which was — was President Trump and Attorney General Sessions basically indicating that they are going to have federal authorities and local police and officials looking out all day long on Election Day for illegal voting, which we know there is vanishingly small evidence that that actually happens.

    I'm just curious what your sense of why they might have been trying to ratchet up fear about that, and if it might have had any impact on how people voted today.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    I think it's hard to measure what the impact is, but it definitely was a form of voter intimidation, if not sort of an attempt to suppress voter turnout, because certain communities that may lawfully be able to vote may be nervous about a friend or family member, or you might be nervous, even if you're allowed to vote, that you might be challenged or questioned while in line.

    So I viewed that tweet as about as close to sort of, you know, welcoming of a kind of voter suppression that you could imagine from the president of the United States. There's just simply no proof of what the president was alleging. And certainly threatening the use of immigration or law enforcement resources was just a fear tactic that we will see if it worked today, just given the numbers that we're seeing in terms of voter turnout.

  • William Brangham:

    In one of her briefings today, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, made mention that, as you indicated, that thus far they hadn't seen any malicious actions by foreign countries.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    But she raised one possible concern that, after the election is over, say, late tonight, tomorrow, later, that news might spread, misinformation type of news, that something had gone wrong with the voting process itself.

    What might be going on in that regard?

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    So, part of what the Russians or any nefarious actor want us, you and me and American citizens, to feel is to not have confidence that our vote counts.

    And so they can do that either by hacking and trying to change our vote or to create atmospherics during the voting process or after that make us believe that something nefarious had happened.

    So, the department, to its credit — and they have been really on the ball today — the department, to its credit, has been trying to bring these sites and this misinformation down.

    So it's a sort of attempt to try to stop the rumor mills from making you and I think that something bad has happened. Can you imagine a rumor that the AP has been hacked and all the numbers are off? Of course, that would limit people's faith in what the final vote is.

    So it's good that they're being very, very focused on not just tonight, but also some of the stories that will come out tomorrow.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Juliette Kayyem, thanks for watching all of this for us. We will check back with you, if need be. Thanks very much.

  • Juliette Kayyem:

    Thank you.

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