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Foreign governments are trying to hack the election, but states are better defended, officials say

It would be "extraordinarily difficult" to change a federal election outcome through mail-in ballot fraud, an FBI official said.
Image: A voter casts a ballot during midterm elections in Cambridge, Ohio
A voter casts a ballot during midterm elections in Cambridge, Ohio, on Nov. 6, 2018.Justin Merriman / Getty Images

The attempts of foreign governments and others to hack into U.S. election systems have been mostly unsuccessful so far this voting season because states have better defenses and the federal government is sharing threat intelligence more widely, election security officials said Wednesday.

U.S. intelligence officials say Russia, China and Iran remain the most active in trying to interfere with US elections, partly by hacking, but also through attempts to influence public opinion through social media. China and Iran prefer to see President Donald Trump defeated, while Russia seeks to denigrate Joe Biden, according to a recent assessment by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

But despite concerns expressed by Trump and Attorney General William Barr about voting by mail, including the possibility of printing counterfeit ballots, an intelligence official said Wednesday that no such effort has been detected.

"We have no information or intelligence that any nation state threat actor is engaging in any kind of activity to undermine any part of the mail-in vote or ballot," the official said.

Shaken by widespread foreign efforts to attack election databases in 2016, including the successful penetration of voter registration records in Illinois, state and local election administrators have bolstered their defenses this time around. And the Department of Homeland Security has placed intrusion sensors on voting systems in all 50 states, a department official said.

"The scanning and probing for vulnerabilities continues, but the vast majority of these attempts are blocked," the official said during a conference call briefing. "We haven't seen to date a ramp-up in activity targeting election infrastructure over the last few months."

A U.S. intelligence official said the only successful attacks seen so far have broadly targeted government computer networks, and "none have inhibited the ability for people to vote or the integrity of the process."

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen gave a similar assessment in remarks to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We have yet to see any activity intended to prevent voting or to change voting, and we continue to think it would be extremely difficult for foreign adversaries to change vote tallies," Rosen said.

And in a major change from four years ago, DHS and the FBI now tell both local and state officials about any attempted hostile intrusions. In the past, such attempts sometimes went unreported because of concerns about sharing intelligence information.

States independently conduct their elections, and that lack of centralization turns out to be an asset.

"It's very difficult for an adversary to meddle with the actual vote count," an FBI official said.

As for concerns about domestic mail voter fraud, an FBI official said it would be "extraordinarily difficult to change a federal election outcome through this type of fraud alone, given the range of processes that would need to be compromised at the local level."

Among the challenges of conducting elections during a pandemic is finding people willing to act as poll workers. State election officials said Wednesday that they are working with the American Bar Association, urging lawyers to volunteer.