WA election officials bracing for last minute misinformation campaigns

Oct 26, 2020

State and local election officials in Washington sought to reassure voters Monday that robust security measures are in place to protect against interference with the general election, even as they acknowledged the likelihood that bad actors will try to sow distrust and undermine confidence in the national election results.

“We are anticipating in the coming days -- the eight days leading up to the election and certainly potentially the days after the election -- misinformation and disinformation campaigns being shared not only on social media, but across the internet,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman cautioned.

Wyman, a Republican who is up for re-election, spoke with reporters during an hour-long virtual briefing that included several county auditors. In recent days, federal officials have warned about efforts by Iran and Russia to interfere with the U.S. election and even hack into voter registration systems. 

Wyman reiterated Monday that there’s no indication Washington’s systems have been compromised. However, she said, election systems generally are under constant threat of attack.

“Certainly we’ve had activity across our system that we’re constantly defending against,” Wyman said.

In 2016, Washington and Oregon were among 21 states targeted by Russian hackers leading up to the election. Those efforts here were unsuccessful. 

Since then, Wyman and county auditors said Washington has hardened its election security. For instance, counties on the briefing call described implementing dual-factor authentication and adding security cameras to their election centers.

Previously established security measures also remain in place like having “air-gapped” election computer systems that are disconnected from other networks and two-person teams to collect ballots from drop boxes.

“We’re very sensitive to security issues,” said Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey.

Voters are clearly more engaged this year than in previous election years, and on heightened alert. Stevens County Auditor Lori Larsen said she’s heard from people who have asked to vote in-person rather than by mail. There’ve also been calls to police about suspicious activity near ballot drop boxes, including a backpack left near a drop box in Everett. Also in Snohomish County, a truck damaged a ballot collection box on Friday triggering rumors about election interference.

“People jumped to the conclusion that that is something intentional and it was an unfortunate collision with a truck,” said Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell.

Security of Washington's more than 500 ballot drop boxes is a top priority. Wyman said for “awareness” purposes her office has provided state and local law enforcement with a map showing the location of all of the secure boxes. But she also noted that while the presence of a police officer or sheriff’s deputy near a drop box might reassure some voters, it could have a chilling effect on others.

“It’s a really tricky balance,” Wyman said.

Security measures and contingency plans are also being put in place for Election Day. Since 2018, cybersecurity experts from the Washington National Guard have worked to help secure state elections, and will once again be on duty this year. The Guard is also helping in the lead up to the election.

In addition, Wyman said, continuity plans are in place in the unlikely event hackers were able to disrupt the reporting of election results on election night. If that were to happen, she said, news reporters covering the election might get a text alert and election officials would provide updates via press release and social media posts.

In a statement Monday afternoon, Wyman’s Democratic challenger, state Rep. Gael Tarleton, called the briefing a “thinly-veiled political ad” that provided “no new information.”

“This is the time for leaders to speak directly to the voters by providing accurate information about our elections and the specific precautions being taken, especially around the measures to rapidly identify and rebut misinformation,” the statement said.

Echoing a theme of her campaign, Tarleton also criticized Wyman and the other participants for not more forcefully condemning efforts to interfere with the election.

“Our elections officials should have denounced foreign and domestic attacks, whether from Russia's President or our own,” Tarleton said.

Already, more than 40 percent of Washington voters have returned their ballots, compared to 18 percent at this time four years ago. 

With just over a week until the election, officials are recommending voters who haven't yet cast their ballot use a drop box instead of the mail when possible. However, in Washington ballots postmarked by Election Day are still counted even if they arrive after Election Day.