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Election chief on mounting threats to poll workers ahead of midterms

Security chief warns of threats to poll workers
CISA election security chief warns of the impact of threats to poll workers 06:22

The nation's top election security official broke down as she recounted the vitriol targeting election officials, including those in her home state of Washington. "It's unnerving," said Kim Wyman, now the senior election lead at the nation's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). 

"Threats like 'we're going to hang you.' And 'I hope somebody puts a bullet in your head,'" Wyman told CBS News in her first TV interview since accepting her new role.

Less than 60 days before the midterm elections, officials are bracing for a range of potential physical security risks prompted by conspiracy-laden claims of voter fraud, the Capitol insurrection and violent rhetoric spreading beyond an outspoken fringe of election deniers into mainstream politics.

Six years ago, threats to election security were dominated by malicious cyber activity of foreign adversaries, like Russia. Now, the U.S. must turn inward to confront concerns about "insider threats" and an uptick in harassment, intimidation, and threats of physical violence directed at poll workers nationwide.

"The cybersecurity threats have not gone away," said Ben Hovland, Commissioner for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). "But now there are personal threats, harassment, intimidating calls and emails, and the weaponization of information requests, reaching across the country."

"What is concerning to me nowadays is the prospect of insider threats," said Natalie Adona, incoming clerk recorder-elect for Nevada County, California. "People who are signing up for the specific purpose of attempting to mess things up."

Insider threats

While U.S. officials are not currently aware of any "specific or credible" threats imminent to the 2022 elections, unofficial election audits spanning several states, warrants to seize voting equipment and the indictment of Tina Peters, Colorado's Mesa County clerk — for facilitating a security breach of her own county's election system — have intensified worries.

"People who go for these jobs – as elected officials or poll workers – have they bought into this stolen election lie? Now we have to worry about them coming in and attempting to be an insider threat," said Matt Crane, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association. "That increases the likelihood of another Tina Peters."

"We have seen a nationwide effort to recruit and train election deniers as poll workers," said Rachel Orey, associate director of elections at the Bipartisan Policy Center, citing groups like "True the Vote," "The Election Integrity Network," and "U.S. Election Integrity Plan." The latter has been sued by civil rights groups who claim members have violated the Ku Klux Klan Act by sending armed "agents" to interrogate voters in a door-to-door voter intimidation campaign. Attorneys for the group deny the allegations.

"Some of the threats we've seen — I have never seen them in all of my years of doing elections," said Wyman, a 30-year veteran of elections.

In September 2021, that unease drove CISA to release its first "insider threats" guide, a 10-page playbook designed to help state and local election officials spot rogue activity among election workers, temporary or seasonal staff, volunteers, vendors and contractors.

Wyman says that while municipalities have dealt with insider threats "long before the 2020 election," CISA has redoubled its efforts "to remind them that insider threats can come on many different levels."

The information war still poses "biggest challenge" to election officials

After Washington State commissioners in at least three counties nixed "Albert sensors" — a cybersecurity tool designed to alert local governments about potential hacking attempts — Wyman immediately called the election officials in her native state.

"I talked them through why we have the sensors," Wyman said. "If we see an IP address in a foreign nation that's hitting every single election office that has an Albert sensor, that's an indicator that that's a threat actor trying to get into those systems. And we can alert those election officials to be able to secure their systems."

Winning the information war remains "the biggest challenge" to election officials, today, according to Wyman. 

A majority of Americans think there was either no voter fraud in the 2020 election or that it was limited to a few isolated incidents, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll last month. But this is not true of Republicans: six in 10 continue to believe there was widespread fraud and irregularities in 2020.

Public officials like Joseph Kirk say renewed skepticism offers an "opportunity to educate" voters. The election supervisor who has overseen contests in Bartow County, Georgia, for 15 years is drafting a "code of conduct" for poll workers to clarify policies and processes in place to address violations of state or federal law.

After California recall proponents pushed their way into county offices in Nevada County to film election workers in late 2021, election officials installed four cameras to offer public livestreams of ballot processing.

In Arizona's bellwether, Maricopa County, public officials were chased to their cars by droves of election deniers — some armed — in the aftermath of the 2020 election.  Now, they offer 2-3 tours of their election facility every week.

Bulletproof glass, magnetometers and fencing

Election officials in Maricopa County have installed perimeter fencing, tinted glass windows and a private security to its tabulation center following the crush of violent threats that accompanied an unofficial election audit peddling "the big lie." County Police Sheriff Paul Penzone has suspended personal time off for police officers during the week of the election to ensure sufficient staffing.

Philadelphia's new election warehouse and ballot processing center is fortified with bulletproof glass, magnetometer-lined entrances and gated security. The upgrades follow the arrests of two heavily armed Virginia men outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center in November 2020. While mail-in ballots were being counted inside, authorities found two loaded semi-automatic Beretta pistols, one semi-automatic AR-15-style rifle, and ammunition in their vehicle, a silver Hummer truck adorned with Q-Anon stickers.

Some election officials worry that election facilities located in buildings repurposed to be polling places may fall short of security demands. 

"My office is an old state patrol barracks," Kirk told CBS News. "This is not a building that was designed to be a very secure building. My polling places – community buildings – are located in places where security was not the first thing in mind. I'm not sure how to temporarily secure those spaces in a way that allows folks to still feel welcome."

CISA has assembled a resource pamphlet geared toward helping election officials access resources to secure voting locations and election facilities, and the agency has hired more than 150 physical security specialists to date who regularly screen public buildings – including election offices and polling sites – for vulnerabilities.

"The only problem with these assessments is that some of our small and medium sized counties don't have the budget to implement all of the recommendations," Crane said. "That's why we've tried to push the federal and state government for increased funding for election security.

Cost of better security

The Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan policy institute, estimates that approximately $300 million is needed for key measures to keep election offices and workers physically secure over the next five years.

"The demands and costs that are being applied to election officials are only going up," said David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. "There is new state legislation that requires things like training of poll watchers, 24/7 surveillance of drop boxes, etc., and all that costs money and requires staff. We haven't invested nearly enough. The last investment from the federal government for elections was $75 million in the last budget. That is literally one quarter for [every] eligible voter in the United States." 

Justice Department officials who have appeared before Congress have pointed to the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program for available funds, but a department spokesperson told CBS News that as of the last reporting period — June 30, 2022 — the Justice Department had not allocated a single dollar to election security. 

More than a year after Attorney General Merrick Garland established the federal Election Threats Task Force to investigate threats to election and poll workers, the unit has faced scrutiny for producing just one conviction and a handful of charges. Last month, the department reported more than 1,000 probes of harassing and threatening messages directed at election workers.

"I'm one of the few cases that has been charged by the FBI," Stephen Richer said of the threat against him. In August, a Missouri man was indicted for leaving a voicemail threatening to kill the Maricopa County Recorder warning that "other people from other states are watching your a**." Richer says he's reported a slew of additional threats against his colleagues online — including on LinkedIn.

"We need more consequences for bad behavior," Adona told CBS News. The California official also believes law enforcement guidance on reporting threats has been too vague. She noted that federal law enforcement has urged officials to share every "problematic" incident, leaving officials guessing as to what meets the reporting threshold. 

"It feels like the people who do the harassing, intimidating and threatening by and large are able to get away from it," she added. "I don't think that bodes well for my profession in the long run."

Denial of services attack

Election deniers have bombarded municipal offices with a coordinated campaign of 2020 voting records requests, prompting some municipalities to dedicate staff members to field such inquiries amid a crunch of midterms preparations.

According to election officials, the latest barrage of public records followed a live-streamed "Moment of Truth" summit in late August organized and livestreamed by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell who urged followers to request "cast vote records" – spreadsheets generated by voting machines -- from election offices across the country.

"One of the things we're seeing frequently now is election officials are overwhelmed with duplicative and frivolous public records requests," said Becker. "They're being harassed by them. Those requests suck up the bandwidth of election offices when they are supposed to be focused on running the next election."

Many of the public records templates circulated by advocates of "the big lie" include false deadlines claiming that state election data will be deleted imminently. In one such email shared with CBS News, a woman identified as Phyllis Minkus, wrote on Aug. 25: "We need to bombard the AZ Recorder's Office with email/submission requests for the Nov 3 election information…ALL Arizona election data will be destroyed Sept 1! You must get this done before that date."

Maricopa County officials received 369 public records requests in 2021. So far this year, that number has already more than doubled to 819.

"When you're spending a considerable time responding to uninformed records requests derived from internet conspiracies, that time is not being spent on the administration of our elections," Hovland, said. "There's no question that this is a denial of services attack," said Crane, referencing a cybersecurity tactic used to overwhelm victims with trafficked communications. "They are trying to create chaos and confusion with these open records requests."

Poll workers wanted

A combination of early retirements and hastened turnover among election officials and poll workers has compounded the resource crunch in election offices.

In Nevada County, with about 102,000 people, Adona estimates a third of poll workers didn't return after the 2020 election – around three times as many as in previous election cycles.

"What I worry about in the long run from that is the impact that has on the institutional knowledge that is leaving with those people," Wyman said. 

Last month, misinformation-fueled threats also prompted all three election officials in Gillespie County, Texas, to abruptly resign.

In Arizona, three of the state's 15 county recorders – officials in Yavapai, Pinal and Yuma counties – have left their posts in the past 90 days.

"A lot of the counties that are suffering the most are red counties," said Becker. "They're smaller counties. In terms of population, they have fewer resources. And when election officials in some of these counties go home at night, their family, friends, and neighbors often think they stole the election."

Philadelphia is trying to aid election staff recruiting with substantial pay increases, boosting base pay from $120 to $200 per day, this month. The compensation hike will also offer workers another $50 for pre-election training.

Amid a new wave of skepticism among voters supporting former President Trump, many election officials have also urged those harboring doubts about U.S. election systems to volunteer – a two-pronged push to debunk misinformation at the source and bolster election worker numbers.

"I often recommend to people who are skeptical: be a poll worker," Hovland recounted. "Get in the door and see the safeguards, checks and bipartisan teams. See the 'chain of custody' procedures. Historically, that gives people a lot of confidence."

"A lot of clerks are actually inviting folks who have concerns about the elections to come in and serve as poll workers so they can learn the process," Crane said. "The key is to learn the truth from the experts, not the lie from the grifters."

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