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'No Specific or Credible Threat' as US Voters Head to Polls


A poll worker prepares "I voted" stickers for voters at the City Clerk's Office ahead of the midterm election in Lansing, Michigan, U.S., Nov. 7, 2022.

Voting appears to be going smoothly as millions of Americans head to the polls on the final day to cast their ballots in the country's midterm elections, despite heightened concerns about violence and other potential interference.

Officials from multiple U.S. agencies, along with state and local election officials, have been preparing to ward off any number of potential problems, from cyberattacks or altercations to misinformation that sends voters to the wrong polling places.

But aside from what they describe as usual or expected technical glitches, the first few hours of voting have been incident free.

"I want to be clear. We continue to see no specific or credible threat to disrupt the election infrastructure," a senior official with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) told reporters Tuesday during a scheduled briefing.

The official, briefing on the condition of anonymity under ground rules established by CISA, said the agency has "high confidence" in the security and resilience of the country's election systems due to extensive preparation for any number of contingencies.

"We do not have any attributed malicious cyber activity or knowledge and infrastructure as of yet," the CISA official added, describing the cyber threats to the election as "quieter [than in the 2020 elections], although not nonexistent."

Despite the positive early assessment, U.S. voters have likewise been bracing for potential problems.

According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, just over half of Americans (51%) say violence at polling places is somewhat or very likely.

The poll, which surveyed 1,500 adults between October 29 and November 1, found just as many (51%) believe there will be interference by foreign countries.

A separate YouGov poll from July found 32% of those surveyed had little to no confidence in the results of the midterms.

Yet U.S. officials also acknowledge the threats to Tuesday's elections are serious and are being treated with proper caution.

Violence

The country's Homeland Security officials began sounding the alarm about potential election-related violence as far back as February, repeating the warning in an updated National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Bulletin in June.

More recent intelligence assessments by U.S. officials caution the greatest threat is posed by so-called "lone wolves" – angry or aggrieved individuals who decide to act on their own.

Likely targets range from election-related infrastructure, such as polling places and ballot drop boxes, to election workers, voters and even political candidates and rallies.

Adding to the concern is the growing use of militaristic language and imagery in U.S.-based disinformation campaigns, some of which is being amplified by U.S. adversaries such as Russia.

"The influence attempts … do not directly encourage people to undertake violent actions, but very likely lay the groundwork and allude to some physical action," Brian Liston, a senior threat intelligence analyst for the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, told VOA by email.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has received more than 1,000 reports of threats against election officials since June 2021, leading to at least six arrests, according to senior officials.

Disinformation

Concerns about disinformation campaigns and influence operations have been increasing steadily in the run-up to the midterm elections.

Information compiled by Limbik, an information defense company, found the volume of misinformation and disinformation pushing narratives that the election will be rigged or stolen, jumped by 268% last month.

Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog and advocacy organization, said Tuesday it has seen an increase in social media traffic that "amplifies typical voting machine issues" in an effort to make them seem intentional.

It also reported growing traffic for a well-known conspiracy theory that wrongly claims that the refusal of election officials to certify results after the polls close is evidence of fraud.


"The [Russian] influence playbook from 2016 is out there and available for multiple actors," the senior CISA official said Tuesday. "And now we have observed new participants who did not really engage in 2020 willing to engage in election influence in 2022."

U.S. officials and researchers believe the majority of disinformation is originating domestically, citing a rise in anti-government and anti-authority sentiment within the U.S.

But they warn there has been a concerted effort by multiple U.S. adversaries, including Russia, China and Iran, to seize on lingering doubts about the election system itself.

The cybersecurity firm Recorded Future has further warned that Russia and China resurrected dormant social media accounts to amplify doubt and deepen U.S. political divisions ahead of the midterm elections.

China has consistently denied allegations it has used and is using influence operations to meddle in U.S. elections.

But on Monday, a key confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin contradicted previous denials from the Kremlin, confessing to ongoing election meddling.

Additional research has warned of likely disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting voting system manufacturers.

Cyber threats

Despite concerns that adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran may try to disrupt the election with a combination of cyber hacks and ransomware, U.S. officials have expressed confidence the risks are low.

Ahead of Tuesday vote, multiple cybersecurity firms said most of what they have seen, so far, is "pretty basic."

"I don't see any indications that any sort of technology is compromised, or we should lose confidence in the election system," Pat Flynn, head of the Advanced Programs Group at Trellix, told VOA.

Still, CISA has warned it is possible hackers may try to go after systems that will make voting more difficult, possibly by trying to take down power stations or by hitting local government websites with ransomware.

But CISA Director Jen Easterly has cautioned that just because there are problems, it does not mean there is an attack.

"There are going to be errors. There are going to be glitches," she said. "These are normal things. They're not nefarious."

VOA's Masood Farivar and Chris Simkins contributed to this report.

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