Why Election Integrity Is a National Security Issue

Autocrats have long exploited fault lines in American society to send the message that our form of governance is untenable.

On January 7, 2021, in the immediate aftermath of riots by Donald Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying appeared before reporters to compare attempts to undermine democracy in America to ongoing efforts among Hong Kong’s citizenry to preserve it.

“[Americans] all condemned it as ‘a violent incident’ and the people involved as ‘rioters,’ ‘extremists’ and ‘thugs’ who brought ‘disgrace.’ Now compare that with what the Hong Kong violent protesters were called, like ‘a beautiful sight’ you brought up and ‘democratic heroes.’ They said that ‘American people stand with them,’” Hua said, referring to the city’s pro-democracy demonstrations last year. “What's the reason for such a stark difference in the choice of words? Everyone needs to seriously think about it and do some soul-searching on the reason.” 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as is often the case, was less tactful in articulating how Tehran, Beijing, and other adversaries perceived the events of January 6. “Have you seen the situation in the U.S.? This is their democracy and this is their election fiasco,” Khamenei said on Twitter. “Today, the U.S. and ‘American values’ are ridiculed even by their friends.” 

In the year since the 2020 presidential election was called for Joe Biden, American political figures and partisan media have done the U.S.’s global enemies work for them, sabotaging public confidence in our oldest democratic institutions through relentless disinformation. In a Marist poll from November 1 of this year, nearly 4 in 10 Americans responded that they don’t have a “great deal” or “good amount” of trust that elections are fair. Only 33 percent of Republicans said they would trust the accuracy of the election results in 2024 if the GOP nominee for president didn’t win. 

Former government officials tell The Dispatch that this crisis of confidence, correctly understood, amounts to a national security emergency. 

“What’s happening is domestic actors who are carrying out efforts to undermine trust in the electoral process are being amplified by foreign adversaries, who have repeated and propagated their claims,” said Michael Chertoff, Department of Homeland Security secretary under former President George W. Bush. “When you have an event like January 6, it’s a gift to the Chinese autocratic leadership. It gets to say to its people, ‘you want democracy in Hong Kong. That’s what you’re going to get, violence.’”

Chertoff was one of nearly 100 former policy officials, Cabinet secretaries, military officers, and cybersecurity officials who signed onto an open letter by the nonprofit Protect Democracy calling on Congress to combat persistent threats to the American electoral system ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections through legislation. In addition to laws protecting election administrators, the letter advocated for additional safeguards against irresponsible, partisan audits.

Protecting our election processes at home also helps us abroad. Autocratic leaders have long exploited pre-existing fault lines in American society to send the message, to their own populace and to the U.S.’s allies, that our form of governance is untenable. For at least five years, the electoral system has been the particular target of such efforts.

“In 2016, we saw the Russians targeting systems that run elections, voter registration databases specifically, but then also creating narratives, building audiences, and driving social media chatter,” Matt Masterson, former head of election security at the  Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) during the Trump administration, told The Dispatch. “What we saw in 2020 was largely just them amplifying existing U.S. domestic narratives. They didn’t have to create the audiences or narratives themselves, they simply had to share them.”

The rapid proliferation of domestic-produced and foreign-circulated disinformation has a tangible impact on not just public confidence in our democratic processes, but in our ability to carry out those processes properly. A June 2021 report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that 1 in 3 election officials felt unsafe in their job amid ongoing threats of violence after last year’s election. This phenomenon contributed to a mass exodus from the profession, which is expected to cause staff shortages in the upcoming midterms. 

“In a very real way, they’ve gone through a traumatic experience and they haven’t had the opportunity to take a step back and evaluate what they’ve just gone through and what they’re continuing to go through,” said Masterson, who stepped down from his position in December. “2020 hasn’t stopped for them—the threats and targeting haven’t stopped. If we can’t literally secure the people who run the election, the very foundation of the process is shaken.”

Another Trump administration deserter, Olivia Troye, has maintained frequent contact with some of the election officials who have been personally targeted. “When these threats against election officials and polling stations happen, they need to be taken seriously and they need to be acted upon,” Troye told The Dispatch. “These are just people who are trying to make their contribution to our country in a non-partisan way.”

Very few people have actually faced prosecution for intimidation operations targeting election officials. In several states, enhanced penalty laws seek to shield public officials like judges and law enforcement officers from being personally threatened. No such penalties currently exist for those threatening civil servants working on elections.

Similarly, many jurisdictions take additional steps to safeguard the privacy of particular groups, like police officers and victims of domestic violence, but have yet to extend such protections to election officials. With the advent of doxing—a tactic designed to intimidate people by sharing their personal information with hostile actors online—even rank-and-file poll workers are finding themselves at the center of disinformation campaigns. 

“A threat to commit an act of violence against an election official or a member of his or her family should be treated as if it was a threat against a public official of some other kind,” Chertoff told The Dispatch, “including a federal official.”

“We saw large social media accounts, including the former president, sharing and tweeting the names of individual election officials,” Masterson said, adding that steps need to be taken to sufficiently change the calculus of people openly propagating lies that lead to the targeting, whether it’s at the ballot box or in the court of law.

But with minimal repercussions and steep potential gains, election disinformation is unlikely to go away soon. A good example is the Arizona “audit” ordered by Arizona Senate Republicans and carried out by Cyber Ninjas. The audit failed to substantiate allegations of widespread voter fraud but has nevertheless proven lucrative for its organizers, raising $5.7 million in donations from Trump-backed groups and donors. The “stolen election” narrative deployed by the former president and his supporters has made appearances in nearly every fundraising initiative since Biden’s victory. This perverse incentive structure feeds damaging narratives and, ironically, weakens election security by granting unvetted and untrained individuals access to voting infrastructure. 

Failing to act quickly could lead to a breakdown in the democratic process should the party in power reject an election outcome again, a near-miss that Troye witnessed firsthand. 

“I was getting increasingly concerned in the last year and a half or so of the Trump administration when I was in the White House, because I saw the patterns of how they undermined different government institutions when they didn’t like the direction that something was going in and it was not in keeping with their agenda,” Troye said. “I saw them undermine the national security community, the intelligence community, the public health community.”

“Fast forward toward the end and I remember the statements where they were already starting to plant the seed for potential election fraud, when they knew that the election might not be going their way,” she added. “In 2020, I remember having a conversation, actually inside the White House, and saying, ‘if this administration loses, will he actually leave? What happens if he doesn’t leave?’”