Oct 15, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: High voter turnout suggests enthusiasm and anxiety about ballots being counted


Joseph Marks

The first is that voters are energized about casting their ballots after a grueling and ugly presidential campaign. And they’re heeding election officials’ entreaties to cast those ballots as early as possible to help avoid a crush of Election Day activity that could overwhelm efforts to ensure the safety and security of voting during the pandemic. 

The less optimistic spin: Voters are extremely concerned about possible election breakdowns, such as mail ballots that arrive too late to be counted or inexperienced poll workers that botch in-person voting — and they’re moving as quickly as possible to avoid those outcomes.

It’s clear some people have been paying attention to stories about potential election failures and they’re voting earlier to make sure their votes will count,” Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who tracks voter turnout, told me. 

“A significant part of the voting populace is motivated and interested in the election and they’re being very responsive to the message to vote early. That’s the glass-half-full explanation,” Edward Perez, global director of technology development at OSET Institute, a nonprofit election technology organization, told me. “But some of that enthusiasm and motivation is tempered by anxiety about whether their vote will be counted.” 

Officials' messaging about getting out the vote – and voter anxiety about electoral mishaps – can sometimes serve the same end.

The majority of early votes in most states appears to be coming from Democrats. A Washington Post analysis of 3.5 million votes cast in six states that provide partisan breakdowns of early and mail voting found about two-thirds of ballots were cast by Democrats, Amy Gardner and Elise Viebeck report. Those states are Florida, Iowa, Maine, Kentucky, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Much of that disparity is surely fueled by a drumbeat of party messaging about election security that's only increased since the Russian hacking and influence operation in 2016. And it's probable that President Trump’s months-long crusade against mail voting, which he repeatedly has claimed without evidence is prone to widespread fraud, spooked some voters. 

The reasons may also be political.

Democrats rushing to the polls may simply be spurred by a desire to vote against the president as quickly as possible. About 64 percent of likely voters supporting Biden said they planned to vote early in a Post-ABC poll conducted Oct. 6 through 9. Meanwhile, 61 percent of likely voters who support Trump said they plan to vote on Election Day. 

“Last night felt like Christmas Eve,” Tony Lewis, a Kentucky voter who showed up on the first day of early voting Monday to cast his ballot for Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden, told my colleagues.

But there’s no doubt anxiety is high, even as Democrats and Republicans worry about the election for different reasons. 

About 62 percent of Trump supporters said they aren’t confident that mail ballots will be counted as voters intended, a separate survey from the Pew Research Center released yesterday found. Just 23 percent of Democrats felt that way, the survey found. 

Meanwhile, about 30 percent of Democrats feared in-person polling sites won’t be run safely without spreading the coronavirus. Less than 10 percent of Republicans felt that way. 

One interesting note: Republicans’ confidence that election systems are secure against hacking has dropped since 2018 while Democrats’ has grown, the survey found. In 2018, 65 percent of Republicans said they believed U.S. election systems are secure against hacking compared with just 60 percent of Trump supporters and those leaning toward Trump now. Only 34 percent of Democrats said they were confident election systems are secure against hacking in 2018 compared with 53 percent of Biden supporter and those leaning toward Biden now. 

So far, the voting process has been relatively free of the sort of technical failures that produced chaos, anger and long lines during the primaries. 

The problems that have popped up — while concerning for voters — have generally been the sort of problems that bedevil most elections that aren’t being conducted against the backdrop of outsize concerns about foreign hacking and the coronavirus pandemic. 

There are a lot of things that could still go wrong in the next 20 days, but considering the challenges of the pandemic, things are going about a well as could be expected,” Perez told me.

In Florida and Virginia, for example, technical foul ups took down online voter registration systems in the final hours before the registration deadline. But in both cases, the state was able to extend the deadline.

There were hours-long voting lines at some polling sites in Georgia. But the lines appear to have been primarily caused by high turnout and voters who lined up to cast their ballots hours before polls opened, rather than technical malfunctions or inexperienced poll workers. 

Officials in Allegheny County, Pa., the state’s second-most-populous county, announced a contractor’s error had resulted in about 29,000 misprinted ballots being mailed to voters. But officials there expect to get corrected ballots to those voters next week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.  

The relatively smooth operation could be a good sign for the remainder of early voting and Election Day. 

If mail ballots arrive early rather than late, that reduces the chances of ballots arriving after deadlines or last-minute scrambling by election offices processing them. If voting machines have weathered weeks of early voting without technology malfunctions, it’s less likely they’ll break down on Election Day. 

“The good news is people are voting and the process is working. The chances we can say this was a failed election are fading as more and more people vote,” McDonald said. He described issues that impeded voting so far as "the typical problems that happen when you have 14 million people doing something.”

But there’s still a long way to go before Election Day. And critics, including the president, could exaggerate even minor problems to degrade confidence in the election’s outcome. 

“Unfortunately, these problems create fodder for conspiracy theorists who blow them out of proportion and say they indicate widespread fraud. And I’m talking about the president,” McDonald said. 

The keys

Social media companies are seeking to limit the spread of a report based on unsubstantiated documents targeting the Biden family. 

Experts raised questions about the authenticity of the documents that formed the basis of the New York Post story and the Washington Post was unable to verify their authenticity. 

Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and his former top adviser Stephen K. Bannon facilitated the release of the documents. Both have attracted scrutiny from U.S. authorities in recent months. Here are details about concerns with the report from Matt Viser, Paul Sonne and Annie Linskey. Here’s an explainer from Glenn Kessler. 

Twitter's hack shows social media companies need their own regulator, New York's financial watchdog says.

The state’s Department of Financial Services is recommending subjecting social media companies to the same cybersecurity oversight as many banks, James Rundle at the Wall Street Journal reports. The report stems from a July breach in which hackers were able to easily take over the accounts of prominent users including Joe Biden and Tesla founder Elon Musk to spread a financial scam.

“Social-media platforms have quickly become the leading source of news and information, yet no regulator has adequate oversight of their cybersecurity. The fact that Twitter was vulnerable to an unsophisticated attack shows that self-regulation is not the answer,” Superintendent of Financial Services Linda Lacewell said in a statement.

The report also dinged Twitter for not having  a chief cybersecurity officer between December 2019 and this September. 

A Twitter representative pushed back on the report saying, “Protecting people’s privacy and security is a top priority for Twitter, and it is not a responsibility we take lightly.” 

Amazon Prime Day and early holiday shopping could add to postal delays that threaten the election.  

Many of the Prime Day orders will be processed by the Postal Service and end up on the same trucks carrying election mail, Jacob Bogage and Abha Bhattarai report.

And union officials say postal workers haven't received guidance on how to deal with the dueling priorities of mail and packages, which have caused delays in sorting. 

The Postal Service told industry representatives at a recent stakeholders meeting that 99 percent of ballots were delivered on time, according to Angelo Anagnostopoulos, vice president of postal affairs for mail data and marketing firm GrayHair Software. But the Postal Service declined to provide that data to The Post.

Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said delivering election mail is the agency’s “number one priority.”

Kate Kudrna, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said Prime Day orders won’t interfere with election mail. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

More than 40 E.U. lawmakers say Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE pose “high-risk" to 5G networks.

The members sent a letter to senior European Union leadership calling for both members and the commission to cut funding for the companies, Laurens Cerulus and Melissa Heikkila at Politico Europe report. The members said that a Chinese law that allegedly compels companies to share information with the Chinese government puts user and government information at risk.

“There is therefore no question that Huawei and ZTE are ‘high-risk’ vendors, whose technology in Europe’s 5G networks would constitute a security threat,” they wrote.

The letter marks a shift in European sentiment toward the companies. U.S. officials have banned the companies from building parts of U.S. 5G networks and urged allies to do the same. But European nations have generally been hesitant to do so.

Huawei has consistently denies allegations it would aid Chinese spying.

Government scan

About three-quarters of states are doing an inadequate job of securing their computer networks against hacking, a new report says.

Among the worst-performing states are North Dakota, Illinois and Oklahoma, according to the report from the company SecurityScorecard. The report is based on information that is available on the Internet, such as whether state networks are patched against known computer bugs.

More cybersecurity news:

Chat room

What would National Cybersecurity Awareness Month be without a few good jokes?


  • The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) will convene a virtual unclassified hearing entitled, “Misinformation, Conspiracy Theories, and ‘Infodemics’: Stopping the Spread Online" today at 1:30 p.m.
  • The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is hosting an online symposium on Data and Democracy on Thursday and Friday.
  • New America will host an event "Will We Ever Vote on Our Phones" on Oct. 21 at noon.
  • The USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative will host a final workshop on the lessons from the workshops its hosted in 50 states leading up to the election on October 28 at 1:30 p.m.
  • The Cybersecurity Coalition and the Cyber Threat Alliance will host CyberNextDC on November 17-18, from 11:00am-3:00pm ET.  

Secure log off

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