WASHINGTON - Officials charged with securing the upcoming U.S. presidential election warn the greatest danger may come from a wave of disinformation unleashed by U.S. adversaries in the hours after polls across the country begin to close.
The officials fear that is when the country will be most vulnerable, with many Americans expecting to see a winner declared on Election Day. But because of the heavy reliance this year on mail-in and absentee ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, those results may not come election night or even the next day.
“This is probably going to take a little bit longer to do the counting because of the increase in absentee ballots,” Christopher Krebs, director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said Tuesday at the virtual Billington Cybersecurity Summit.
“Have a little bit of patience,” he said in a message to voters. “Democracy wasn't made overnight.”
This is not the first time Krebs has issued such a warning, but the message is becoming more urgent with less than two months to go until the election and with increased focus on voting by mail.
“One of the things that election officials are talking about a lot is setting the expectations of the voters and of the media so that they can be prepared,” said Trevor Timmons, chief information officer for Colorado’s Department of State.
Colorado is among a handful of U.S. states that allows all registered voters to vote by mail, sending out ballots several weeks ahead of the election. Many other states have updated or modified their procedures when it comes to voting by mail this year in response to concerns about COVID-19.
But rules on when states can start counting mail-in ballots vary.
By law, Colorado officials can begin tallying votes 15 days before the election, though the results cannot be released until after in-person voting ends.
In contrast, at least 15 states do not start counting mail-in ballots until after the polls close. Others, including potential swing states like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, do not start tallying mail-in ballots until Election Day.
Election results likely delayed
With increased mail-in voting, officials expect many states will be getting a record number of mail-in ballots.
As a result, they say it is possible, if not likely, that Americans will go to bed election night not knowing if President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden will lead the United States for the next four years,
“We're probably not going to know on Tuesday [Nov. 3] at 7:00 p.m. We probably are not going to know Tuesday in the middle of the night,” Timmons said.
Election officials say their goal is to make sure voters are aware of the possibilities and are not deterred from casting their ballot.
“If people choose not to vote because they don't think the process is trustworthy, then the bad guys have won,” Timmons said.
To make sure the so-called "bad guys" do not win, election officials say they have been working to “control the battlespace.”
"Our focus has really been on building resilience in the American people,” according to Matthew Masterson, a senior cybersecurity adviser with the Department of Homeland Security.
Warning against disinformation
A key part of the plan has been to work with state and local officials, and with social media companies, to continually educate voters about where they can get accurate and timely information.
In particular, CISA officials are warning voters to avoid getting information from any source with links to Russia, especially Russian-backed news outlets like RT and Sputnik, as well as Ruptly, which describes itself as an international news agency providing video on demand.
State officials have also been pushing back.
"Efforts to sow those seeds of doubt in our electorates' minds have come from domestic sources and from foreign sources this year, more than ever before," Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told lawmakers during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last month.
“We've partnered with professional athletes, business leaders and other influencers to help get that information out in a way that will reach the voters and push back against the rhetoric," she said.
At the same time, officials and some private sector companies have been working to reassure prospective voters that the voting systems are secure.
"Every tabletop exercise, every penetration test, every risk and vulnerability assessment that we've been a part of says that our defenses are good," said Chris Wlaschin, vice president of systems security at Election Systems & Software, the largest manufacturer of voting machines in the U.S.
“The likelihood of a polling place machine — whether it's a ballot marking device or a precinct scanner — the likelihood of those being hacked to somehow manipulate unofficial results is very low," he added Tuesday during the Billington Cyber Security Summit.
Ultimately, election officials are hoping that voters understand that just because there will likely be a delay in getting final results does not mean that something is wrong.
“That just is the process working,” Homeland Security's Masterson said.
“Election officials are going to focus on accuracy and correctness," he added. “They're going to process those ballots, and they're going to count them. And you're going to get the results certified and correct, as you’d expect.”