Americans have heard a lot about threats to the 2020 election. But one of the greatest threats may be a loss of faith in our electoral system itself.
The director of the F.B.I., Christopher Wray, told Congress in September that his greatest concern about the election was the erosion of voter confidence — and “a perception of futility” fueled in part by disinformation and cyberattacks. That’s because the overarching goal of our adversaries is not to elect any one candidate, but to cast doubt on the integrity of our institutions.
Americans must play a powerful role ensuring they don’t succeed. Be prepared for the days ahead with credible information, realistic expectations — and a lot of patience. Here are some ways to defend our democracy:
1. Don’t overstate the risks. The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, known as CISA, has not identified any cyber incidents thus far that are capable of preventing Americans from voting. Federal, state and local officials have taken significant steps to secure election systems. Federal agencies charged with leading the effort to protect the election have released statements and a video on potential threats, and on the response, along with tangible steps voters can take.
It’s important to note that about 92 percent of votes cast this election will have a paper record (up from roughly 80 percent four years ago). These paper records will enable postelection audits, helping confirm that votes are tallied accurately. More can and should be done, but some experts have argued that 2020 could be the most secure election the United States has ever known.
2. Know what’s real and not. President Trump has spread baseless claims of mail-in ballot fraud, and his attempts to sow confusion and doubt leave many voters unsure of what information is credible. Federal officials have warned that foreign rivals could spread disinformation about the election results or supposedly compromised voting systems, hoping to cast doubt on the outcome.
We have seen this already. In September, the Russian media outlet Kommersant reported that Russian hackers had stolen voter roll data from Michigan — but in fact, that data was already publicly available. A few weeks ago, Iranians sent threatening and intimidating emails to voters, masquerading as a white supremacist group.
Americans should seek out and identify credible sources of information now, before Election Day. These sites should include state and local election offices, which voters can find through the National Association of Secretaries of State website, and a dedicated “rumor control” website run by CISA. When it comes to media reporting of election results, The Associated Press remains the gold standard for calling races.
3. Expect messiness. There will be problems on Election Day. Long lines and broken polling machines are common already in early voting. Poll workers could be in short supply. We need to fix these problems, but they, by themselves, are not a sign that the election lacks integrity. Moreover, CISA has emphasized that even intrusions into state and local government computer networks — which Russian hackers have already engaged in — do not mean those systems or “the integrity of the vote” has been affected.
4. Check before you share information. Social media will be rife with speculation and false content, particularly if results are delayed or contested. Americans should remember that would-be manipulators will play on that uncertainty and emotion. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Mark Warner of Virginia, who lead the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have urged Americans “to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting.”
5. If you see something, say something. It’s a crime to spread disinformation about the manner, time, or place of voting, and you should report such efforts to the authorities or, if online, use in-platform tools to report them. Don’t take matters in your own hands.
6. Be patient. As most voters have heard by now, it may take longer this year to learn election results — and that is not a cause for alarm. But nefarious forces could use this delay to raise doubts, including about the integrity of the election itself, and some candidates might seek to prematurely claim victory. Voters should be both patient and insistent on transparency in the process of tabulating results, giving election officials the time to get it right. For information about the final election results, rely on the people who are validating and certifying the results — state and local election officials.
7. Vote. Make a plan to vote (if you haven’t done so already), and follow through with it. Casting your ballot is the single greatest act of faith in our democratic process and the most important rejoinder to those who seek to sow doubt.
American democracy has always been a bit unruly, and this year’s election may be particularly so. In the future, Americans should demand that our officials deal with the problems in our election systems, remove barriers to voting and guard against foreign interference.
But a good first step would be to resist those looking to making us lose faith in the process. And that power rests squarely with American voters.
Laura Rosenberger is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
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