DES MOINES, Iowa — Editor's Note: The video above is from May 2021.
State election officials say they are confronting a myriad of challenges heading into the 2022 midterm elections, from threats of foreign interference and ransomware to changes of election laws and concerns of physical safety — all while still dealing with a wave of misinformation and disinformation surrounding last year’s presidential election.
The nation’s secretaries of state have been meeting with the goal of building relationships across states, sharing best practices and hearing from experts. The long list of challenges, outlined in various panel discussions over their association's four-day conference, might seem daunting but election officials said preparations have already begun.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” said Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican. “For us to be able to get together and talk with one another, compare notes, even commiserate on a human level a little bit about some of the drama over the last year and a half is a good experience. It’s a useful thing, and we learn a lot from each other.”
Heading into the 2020 presidential election, the focus for election officials was shoring up cybersecurity around the nation’s voting systems after Russia four years earlier had probed for vulnerabilities and, in a small number of cases, breached voter registration systems.
Then the pandemic happened, and state election officials had to scramble to ensure they could handle an onslaught of mail ballots from voters wary of crowded polling places while also dealing with shortages of poll workers and other staff triggered by the coronavirus.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said she was confident looking ahead to the midterms because states were able to hold successful and secure elections despite all those logistical challenges.
“What we went through in 2020 was unlike anything any election administrators have ever had to go through, and we did it successfully,” Benson said. “And through that experience, we have the confidence that we can take on additional challenges in the future because we have already overcome so much.”
In many ways, though, the election did not end as former President Donald Trump and his most ardent supporters continue to question his loss despite no evidence of fraud or wrongdoing. Nine months after the vote, election officials in key states still find themselves defending the integrity of their elections, combating conspiracy theories surrounding voting machines and facing death threats.
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, told her colleagues during a discussion Saturday that just that day she had received three death threats on social media. She praised the U.S. Department of Justice for forming a task force to focus on threats to election officials and urged them to actively monitor social media accounts of key officials and not just rely on reports coming in.
In an interview, Griswold said she was concerned false claims surrounding the 2020 election were still driving threats to election workers across the country and what effect this could have on retaining a qualified and ethical workforce.
“It can’t be the new normal that civil servants get their lives threatened because people are believing a big lie that extreme elected officials are pushing out on a daily basis,” Griswold said. “That’s not good for the country. That’s not the United States that people think of when they think of the American dream.”
Just last week, Griswold announced an investigation into a security breach at a local election office and said there was reason to believe an official in that office was aware of what happened and may have facilitated it. The official later appeared at a gathering of Trump supporters in South Dakota, accusing the state of wanting to take over the office. Griswold said instances like this underscore the importance of having guardrails in place to ensure elections are protected and warned “democracy will be on the ballot” in 2022.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said she and her staff have also experienced regular threats since the election and amid an ongoing review of the voting process in Phoenix’s Maricopa County. Hobbs has objected to the review, which was initiated by Republicans in the Arizona Senate and involved handing over voting systems to an outside firm whose leader had tweeted support for conspiracy theories claiming Trump won.
Hobbs said she was confident cybersecurity defenses have improved but worried false narratives surrounding the election continue to proliferate and undermine public confidence in elections.
“We’ve put all of the things in place that need to be there to secure the systems. It’s the disinformation that continues to be the biggest threat,” Hobbs said.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, said officials were being too dismissive of those who have concerns about the 2020 election and said he sees maintaining public confidence as the biggest challenge heading into next year’s midterms.
“There are large swaths of America that have questions about that election, and they’re not being listened to. They are being muzzled,” Warner said. “And it’s not healthy.”
Another key question will be funding and whether Congress allocates more money to help state and local election officials. Many state election officials have called for a steady source of funds so they can plan security upgrades, add cybersecurity professionals and help cover costs associated with an increase in mail voting.
While there is consensus the federal government should help fund elections, differences emerge along party lines as to how Congress should go about doing that. Republicans like Warner don’t want to see strings attached to the funding, whereas Democrats like Griswold have been advocating for federal standards that would expand voting access and blunt the effects of new laws that tighten rules around mail ballots.
Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid said history shows election officials cannot rely on federal funds even though they are needed.
“Would it be easier to have additional resources? Absolutely. But even without that, our counties will always do whatever they can,” Degraffenreid said. “But that may mean working really long hours, every day, just to make sure that they can support the functions within their office.”