2:00 pm EDT - 4:15 pm EDT

Past Event

Election integrity and security in the era of COVID-19

Friday, July 17, 2020

2:00 pm - 4:15 pm EDT

Online Only

On July 17, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings hosted a webinar to examine election security and integrity in the era of COVID-19. Following keynote remarks from Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Brookings Senior Fellow Fiona Hill moderated a panel discussion on methods for safeguarding election security. Brookings Fellow and Deputy Director of the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative Chris Meserole then moderated a panel discussion on adapting to new disinformation tactics.

To begin, Krebs provided an overview of recent election security initiatives spearheaded by CISA, which was founded in 2018 as the “nation’s risk adviser.” Following the 2016 election, which Krebs characterized as a “Sputnik moment” for the United States, CISA took decisive action to ensure that “2020 will be the most secure election in modern history.” According to Krebs, three key initiatives have contributed to increased election security and integrity. First, CISA built trusting relationships with state and local officials and private partners to create a “vibrant election security community of practice.” Second, it established an Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC) for the election infrastructure community to promote communication among stakeholders in both the private and public sectors. Third, agencies across the federal government unified their efforts to prevent and respond to election threats. He also noted that alongside these improvements has come a marked decrease in “coordinated, determined cyber activity from adversaries.”

During the first panel, speakers emphasized that elections are fundamentally under state and local control. Mark Harvey, former special assistant to the president and senior director for resilience policy at the National Security Council, described the major changes to personnel, polling places, information technology, and voting methods that states and localities will need to adapt to in November due to the pandemic. Because of these changes, a successful election will require expanded vote-by-mail options, mass recruitment of new poll workers, and extensive voter education resources, as David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, explained. Additionally, voters will need to be patient, as results will likely not be available on election night. Brookings Senior Fellow and Executive Editor of Lawfare Susan Hennessey commented that high turnout can also act as a safeguard by increasing public confidence in the election. She added that while “it’s virtually impossible to change the outcome of an election in a way that would be undetected,” we must be prepared for the possibility of an adversary introducing a degree of uncertainty into the results.

The second group of panelists outlined recent developments in the disinformation tactics that state and non-state adversaries employ. President and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis Alina Polyakova noted that such tactics include obfuscating the origins of disinformation campaigns and manipulating local actors to engage in “information warfare by proxy.” Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, added that China has shifted its disinformation approach from one of promoting China’s image to one of fomenting “confusion, doubt, and chaos.” Facebook’s Global Threat Disruption Lead David Agranovich identified two other key trends — disinformation campaigns increasingly originate domestically and circulate on websites outside of traditional social media platforms.

Moreover, panelists assessed current attempts to combat disinformation. Polyakova observed that the existing patchwork approach the U.S. and allies are using is insufficient because “the digital environment is not bound by national borders, so national regulatory frameworks cannot address what we’re talking about.” Rosenberger highlighted the need for an affirmative agenda in addition to defensive tactics, adding that any future plan to counter disinformation must be grounded in democratic values. “In this contest between a democratic model and an authoritarian model, living our values is strategic,” she explained. According to Agranovich, “we have to be thinking about how to build resilience in every part of our society.” This will require a coordinated approach that includes technology companies, all levels of government, and civil society.

Event Recap By
Chloe Suzman Research and Events Intern - Center on the United States and Europe
Filippos Letsas Senior Research Assistant - Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe, The Brookings Institution

Panel 2: Adapting to new disinformation tactics