Why American elections are resilient but still vulnerable

The system's security depends on state and local officials.

November 2, 2022, 7:22 AM

This story is part of the ABC News series "Democracy in Peril," which examines the inflection point the country faces after the Jan. 6 attacks and ahead of the 2022 election.

America's elections system, though battle-tested and proven over decades, is facing a political environment in which public distrust has quickly eroded voters' confidence and threats to elections officials have raised new concerns.

Voter confidence has wavered significantly following the 2020 election after former President Donald Trump denied Joe Biden's victory and promptly instructed his allies and supporters to demand the election results be overturned, leading to the violent events of Jan. 6.

That, despite an election that experts called the most secure in the nation's history.

PHOTO: A poll manager checks people in to vote at the Hazel Parker Playground on Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020 in Charleston, S.C.
A poll manager checks people in to vote at the Hazel Parker Playground on Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020 in Charleston, S.C.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images, FILE

Election skepticism stretches back years -- and, experts and polls say, is getting worse -- fueled in part by Trump's attacks on early and mail voting and before that, in 2016, doubt began to grow with reports of foreign interference.

The reality, though, is that federal elections in America are hard to manipulate, nonpartisan experts told ABC News.

Increased federal funding to support election staff and technological upgrades, expanded verified paper ballots and post-election audits, they say, along with electing public servants who fundamentally believe in the elections process, have produced federal elections that are mostly resilient.

Experts from the Brennan Center, the States United Democracy Center and other groups who spoke with ABC News said elections succeed because of how diffuse they are -- any disruption would likely occur at the local level but not affect counting on a state or national scale.

While fraud at any level is extremely rare, they say, there are more opportunities for interference at the local level because of thousands of different elections systems.

These experts also said the election system's overall function and integrity falls squarely on the shoulders of one group -- elections officials -- from secretaries of state to election night volunteers -- who despite an unprecedented number of recent threats have mostly risen to the occasion to ensure accuracy and fairness throughout the process.

Senior FBI officials told ABC News their election security task force has received more than 1,000 tips about threats to election workers since June 2021. Those threats were overwhelmingly through email, along with some others by phone and social media. Fifty-eight percent of the threats involved disputed election results, with roughly 11% of those more than 1,000 tips warranted further federal investigation.

"I'm not concerned about this upcoming election, because we have been relying on these public servants who really are willing to put partisanship aside, do the right thing to make sure our elections are reliable," said Gowri Ramachandran, senior counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice Elections & Government Program.

PHOTO: Electronic voting machines seen on Election Day at a voting site at PS 171 in Queens, New York City.
Electronic voting machines seen on Election Day at a voting site at PS 171 in Queens, New York City.
Ron Adar/Sopa Images/Sipa USA via AP, FILE

"But I would also say in the longer term, you know, we can't take those people for granted and we shouldn't take them for granted."

The safety of US elections

Elections in the United States, even on the national scale during presidential contests, are run largely at the county level. In some states, it's even more local, down to a municipality or township.

Those on the front lines of elections are some of the biggest players: state and local governments, election officials, federal partners, and vendors. The top election official is usually the secretary of state, board, commission, elected or appointed individual, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Then, various levels of county officials, clerks or election boards who are tasked with designating polling locations and overseeing the volunteers who direct voters at the ballot box, run tabulation machines and observe lines, among other responsibilities, said Joanna Lydgate, the co-founder and CEO of the States United Democracy Center.

"The fact that election administration is so decentralized in the United States, it is an asset when it comes to election security, because it means that if there is some kind of disruption, often the impact of that is limited to just that local jurisdiction," Ramachandran said.

"It really severely limits the impact of any mistakes or interference that does happen."

But because American elections vary by jurisdiction, their safety and security also depend on the locality.

Elections officials are typically trained through rigorous certification programs specifically tailored to their duties. In a state like Georgia, election superintendents provide training to all poll officers and poll workers regarding the use of voting equipment, voting procedures, all aspects of state and federal law applicable to conducting elections, and the poll officers' or poll workers' duties in connection to each election.

Tina Taylor, who worked elections in Charleston County, South Carolina, in 2016 and 2020, said it was during her training that she really got a sense of how secure the voting process was in her county, given the number of different people and steps involved.

"How the voting machines are set up, there's no way that someone can cheat. I mean, we have so many checks and balances … you have to go through so much just to vote," she said.

"Everything is locked. Everything is calibrated, everything is numbered. Everything is initialed two to three times, witnessed by two or three people at the same time … I was just like, 'Well, I really don't know how someone could cheat.'"

Taylor's trust in the election process echoes what election security experts have long stated: disrupting federal elections in a significant way would be extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible.

While mail ballots are more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting, it is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud, according to one Brennan Center report.

"Elections are run by states, but one thing that's consistent across the country is that state and local election officials have strict procedures in place to protect your ballot. These measures make sure that every vote is cast by a registered voter, and then counted and certified. Your vote is secure, no matter how you choose to cast your ballot -- whether you use a drop box, put your ballot in the mail, vote early, or vote in person on Election Day. We have a long history in this country of safe and secure elections. This year is no different," said Lydgate.

Ahead of the 2022 midterms, dozens of state and local officials across the country told ABC News that preparations for the election are being hampered ongoing threats against election workers, but federal and state laws may provide protection.

PHOTO: Poll workers, and siblings, (L-R) Mackenzie Threatt, Corey Threatt and Taylor Threatt work a polling location on June 9, 2020 in West Columbia, S.C.
Poll workers, and siblings, (L-R) Mackenzie Threatt, Corey Threatt and Taylor Threatt work a polling location on June 9, 2020 in West Columbia, S.C.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images, FILE

The nation's top intelligence and law enforcement agencies -- from the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security -- Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, U.S. Election Assistance Commission -- have confirmed the security of the 2020 election, saying there were no significant instances of voter fraud.

The courts have also struck down cases alleging wide-scale voter fraud through legal challenges, Trump and his allies "have failed to discount a significant number of votes, block the certification of results, or overturn the results of any race," according to a Brennan Center report.

"To date, [DOJ investigators] have not seen fraud on a scale that could have affected a different outcome in the election," said Trump Attorney General William Barr in December 2020.

One of the primary resiliency measures employed in 2020, Ramachandran said, is that many election jurisdictions made significant progress on using voting systems that have verifiable paper records, allowing the ability to go back and count each ballot if necessary.

Widespread mail-in voting added to that paper trail during the coronavirus pandemic, along with printouts of the voter's choices at in-person polling locations.

"The good news is that a lot of those are still in place, in terms of people's confidence in the upcoming midterms," said Ramachandran.

There's also a promising trend of information sharing between The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (created in 2018) and state and local election officials, she said, with the federal government providing warnings and alerts to local officials, along with increased security at physical voting locations.

Post-election tabulation audits, or checks on the equipment and procedures used to count votes during an election, are another foolproof way to ensure the safety of elections. This is already required in most states, including many battleground ones like Pennsylvania and Nevada -- states that have also been subject to intense voter fraud speculation from certain groups.

Joanna Lydgate of the States United Democracy Center said that as she travels the county and talks with election officials, she's also encountered an "incredible resilience and a commitment" to the work, which is a promising trend ahead of the upcoming midterm elections.

"It's a very difficult environment right now in which to be doing these jobs. That said, I think that there is so much. There is so much resilience, and, you know, we saw in 2020 How good pro-democracy election officials from both sides of the aisle stood up and did their jobs under the most challenging circumstances," said Lydgate.

"You trust nurses and doctors with your health, you trust teachers, with your children's education, you trust a car mechanic with your vehicle. Election officials are professionals in the same way. They're trained to run our elections and we've trusted them to do that for decades."

What makes US elections vulnerable

Because elections are run at the local level, the process can also easily become subject to interference due to the vast number of opportunities for meddling among the thousands of different elections systems. Interference could occur through foreign adversaries, harassment and intimidation of election workers or even voter suppression measures, Ramachandran said, but because each election is conducted locally, those vulnerabilities would not affect voting on a nationwide or even statewide scale.

"Having so many different entities involved in elections … provides checks and balances, but it also provides more opportunities for interference," said Ramachandran.

Taylor has been a poll worker at the same precinct in Charleston, South Carolina for six years. The 2016 cycle went off without a hitch, she said, with no recollection of fear and threats. During Election Day in 2020, she remembers a few Trump-aligned people who were not registered to vote at the location that showed up with aims to harass voters and poll workers.

"We had a couple of Trump supporters that came in. One in particular really took like, a couple of hours to get off the premises," Taylor said. "She was trying to convince us that we were seeing things the wrong way … it was mostly mixed with QAnon and MAGA."

Taylor is not planning on returning as a poll worker at a time when South Carolina is seeing a mass exodus of election employees -- 22 South Carolina election directors across 19 counties who have left office since the 2020 general election. Two others have announced plans to leave at the end of the year, according to a new report by The State newspaper.

And that's not unique to South Carolina. Another Brennan Center survey of nearly 600 local officials across the country found that one in five reported they were unlikely to continue serving through the 2024 presidential election.

PHOTO: Wandrea ArShaye "Shaye" Moss, former Georgia election worker, is sworn in prior to testifying during the fourth hearing of the January 6th investigation at the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2022 in Washington.
Wandrea ArShaye "Shaye" Moss, former Georgia election worker, is sworn in prior to testifying during the fourth hearing of the January 6th investigation at the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2022 in Washington.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The problem is evident in places like rural Gillespie County, Texas, where all the elections officials abruptly left their posts just ahead of the midterm elections, or as large as in Georgia's largest county, Fulton County, detailed by former election worker Wandrea ArShaye "Shaye" Moss, who testified during a June 21 Jan. 6 committee hearing about her experience with harassment following false claims made by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Senior FBI agents told ABC News that foreign governments, especially Russia, continue to try to take full advantage of lies and misinformation suggesting mistrust in election results.

Russia -- now embedded in the U.S. social media ecosystem and elsewhere digitally -- is using technology to covertly push and amplify false narratives about the election, they said.

While Russian counterintelligence operatives used to create false narrative content themselves -- they can now rely on lies about the election being told by Americans and U.S. organizations, the senior FBI officials told ABC News.

The officials also said that China is beginning to use some Russian tactics aimed at undermining confidence in U.S. elections and in some cases is targeting state and local officials.

ABC News' Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.

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