Despite the myriad of threats that faced the nation during the 2022 midterms, experts say security for the election proved successful overall. They warned, however, that some improvements are still needed in certain areas.
Experts praised election officials for being well-prepared and efficient at managing ongoing threats while communicating with voters on how to spot disinformation.
“This was a remarkably smooth election given everything that we were facing as a country,” said Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Brennan Center’s elections and government program.
In the months and weeks leading up to the election, government officials sent out regular alerts warning the public of threats that could impact the midterms, including cyberattacks, foreign interference, disinformation, insider threats and threats to election workers.
Experts said that in the last couple years, the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and other agencies have been preparing for and responding to all kinds of threats that could jeopardize elections, including by conducting tabletop exercises, drills and workforce development for personnel involved in securing elections.
And most recently, Norden said there’s been an increased focus on protecting election workers from harassment, intimidation and physical threats following the 2020 presidential election, in which former President Trump sought to undermine the result of the election by falsely claiming that it was rigged and that there was widespread voter fraud.
Last year, the Department of Justice established a special task force to combat the rising threats against election officials and workers. In August, the task force reported that it had reviewed over 1,000 reported threats and found that 11 percent of them merited federal criminal investigation.
The task force also said it had charged four federal cases over such threats, adding that multiple state prosecutions had also been conducted.
“It’s clear that there was a fair amount of preparation over the past couple years to try to address some of the most serious physical threats that we saw in 2020,” Norden said.
In the international space, David Hickton, founding director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security, praised the U.S. Cyber Command for sending clear messages to adversaries that it was prepared to take the necessary steps to protect the election from foreign threats.
In August, the agency sent out a press release saying that the government was ready to defend the U.S. electoral system from foreign interference and foreign influence ahead of the midterms.
Hickton also praised federal, state and local officials’ active sharing of information about ongoing threats to the election.
He added that the success of midterms security was largely due to ongoing efforts and preparation from the government to mitigate and disrupt election threats.
“I believe that this is a continuation of a trendline that started in 2018 as we continue to improve the federal, state and local partnerships,” Hickton said.
Former CISA Director Chris Krebs recently expressed views similar to those of the experts.
At an annual cyber summit last week, Krebs praised elections officials for doing a “good job” at securing the midterm elections and communicating with voters on how to identify false information.
Krebs said debunking misinformation and disinformation narratives ahead of elections is crucial.
“You can do all this stuff in the background, but you have to continue to communicate, communicate, communicate on what is happening and what [voters] should be thinking about as information is teed up,” Krebs said.
“The key here is that the prebunking is dependent on identifying the potential areas that could be exploited,” he added.
Up until the day of the election, government officials were continuing to communicate about ongoing threats. On Election Day, senior CISA officials told reporters that they had not identified any “specific or credible threats” that would disrupt the election system but were remaining vigilant as new threats could arise as voters headed to the polls.
The officials also said the agency was confident that the election was as secure as it could be because of steps it took, including closely working with state and local election officials to ensure that they had the resources in place to protect the election infrastructure.
However, the agency’s efforts didn’t prevent cyber actors from launching cyberattacks on Election Day. According to CISA, a “handful” of distributed denial of service attacks briefly impacted a number of state election websites, including in Mississippi and Illinois.
A CISA official then said that while it’s difficult to attribute the state website attacks to a specific group or state actor, the agency had not seen any evidence suggesting that they were “part of a widespread coordinated campaign.”
The official added that it’s critical to understand that low-level cyberattacks such as distributed denial of service attacks do not affect a voter’s ability to cast a ballot or have it counted, as these attacks only impact the website.
Norden said that these kinds of attacks show that despite months or years of preparation there are still vulnerabilities in the election systemthat can be exploited by cyber criminals.
“I don’t know if [those attacks] could have been prevented but it’s certainly a reminder that the cyber threat is always there and that it could be worse and that we have to be prepared with resiliency plans,” Norden said.
Despite the success of the election security, experts said there’s still room for improvement, including through allocating more funding and resources to election officials as they combat physical threats to workers, cyber threats, disinformation and insider threats.
Norden said he would also like to see more staff from CISA closely working with election officials on physical security.
He added that upgrading election infrastructure, like replacing outdated voting machines and updating voter registration databases, is also important, as it helps election officials run elections smoothly.
“If we want the system to work and to work quickly, we need support for that,” Norden said.
As for disinformation, Norden said CISA should continue to use its Rumor Control webpage to debunk misinformation and disinformation narratives. He said the website is also beneficial for local and state governments to use as they continue to fight against the rise of disinformation in their own jurisdictions.
“I think local jurisdictions are getting better at doing their own work around pushing back against false information around elections and making sure that truthful information is known,” Norden added.
However, he said that debunking disinformation can be tricky, especially for government officials as they try to avoid politicization and being seen as partisan.
Looking forward to the 2024 presidential election, Norden said he expects it to be much more intense as threats continue to evolve and as the country becomes more polarized.
He added that government agencies and election officials should take lessons from the 2022 midterms and apply them to upcoming elections.
“We need to double down in terms of what we’ve been doing to ensure that we have a smooth 2024 election,” he said.