A day after the polls closed for the United States’ midterm elections, the government agency charged with leading election security efforts expressed confidence that every vote cast was being counted accurately.
“We have seen no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was any way compromised in any race in the country,” said Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), in a statement Wednesday.
“We can all have confidence in the safety, security, and integrity of our elections,” she added.
The assessment confirmed a sentiment expressed by multiple CISA officials while briefing reporters on Election Day: that they were seeing “no specific or credible threats to disrupt election infrastructure.”
The CISA confirmed that some states had been subjected to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, in which servers are bombarded with multiple requests, causing the targeted websites to shut down.
But a second senior CISA official, who briefed reporters late Tuesday on the condition of anonymity, downplayed the attacks, noting that they did not affect any systems used by voters to cast ballots or have their ballots counted.
“Those websites that have been affected were restored relatively quickly,” the official said, adding, “We’ve not seen any evidence to suggest that these are part of a widespread coordinated campaign.”
One such attack, on public-facing websites for the state of Mississippi, including those with information about the election, was quickly claimed by a Russian hacking group, though state officials and the CISA said it was too early to determine attribution.
Learning from past elections
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, there had been concerns that key U.S. adversaries might try to disrupt the election with a combination of cyber hacks and ransomware, mimicking tactics like those used by Russia and Iran ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
But U.S. officials expressed confidence that years of preparation and coordination with federal, state and local officials would pay off and prevent any attacks from interfering with the vote.
“We took what we learned in the 2018 and 2020 elections to apply to the 2022 midterm elections,” a spokesperson for the National Security Agency’s Election Security Group told VOA on the condition of anonymity to discuss foreign threats to the elections.
“Our partners have unclassified chatrooms with state and local entities,” the spokesperson said. “If they receive information that might be valuable for the whole-of-government defense, we are able to pivot on those tips in foreign space so we can provide information back to bolster resiliency and help them mitigate issues.”
And in the days before the election, cybersecurity companies such as Trellix told VOA that malicious cyber actors seemed to be more focused on technology and health care companies than on election infrastructure.
According to an initial count by the United States Election Project, approximately 115 million Americans cast ballots in Tuesday’s nationwide election, with some states accepting mail-in ballots for another week.
Some malfunctions with voting equipment Tuesday in Arizona and New Jersey also sparked rumors and allegations of efforts to rig or fix the election, but state officials and CISA rejected such talk as “just flat-out incorrect.”
“To be very clear, we have no indication of malfeasance or malicious activity,” the second senior CISA official said. “It is a technical issue … and they have resolved it.”
However, the fallout from the voting machine problems, which did not ultimately prevent voters from casting ballots, highlights the challenge facing election officials. With the battle to defend election systems from intrusion and meddling coming to an end, they now must win the fight against disinformation.
“We tend to think of election day as the peak event for disinformation. But for the past two election cycles, the most problematic narratives tend to take hold in the days after the election — especially if the vote counting stretches over a period of days/weeks,” Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, told VOA via email.
Already, state election officials are trying to get word out that patience will be key.
“Do not fall victim to false information,” the National Association of State Election Directors said in a statement issued early Tuesday, emphasizing that it would take “days and weeks” to finish counting all the votes.
“While the media has called many winners and losers already, these results are not official,” the statement said. “The numbers and margins will change as election officials follow their state laws.”
While officials and experts say much of the election-related disinformation, to this point, has been generated by Americans, the CISA and the FBI warn it is likely that such narratives will be picked up and amplified by key adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran.
All three “will take advantage of sort of election integrity narratives that come up in the U.S. ecosystem,” a senior FBI official, briefing on the condition of anonymity, told reporters last month. “We’ve seen that already, specifically from Russia.”
Only it seems Russia and China have not been as active as anticipated.
“Our analysts are mostly surprised by how quiet things have been on the foreign adversary front — at least with what we can track in the overt space,” Schafer said. “But again, it’s early. If there are things that go sideways, we may see more from them.”
Other analysts caution that foreign adversaries may simply be biding their time.
“Foreign malign influence actors are likely evaluating the success of their influence attempts, measuring which narratives were more successful, and what (if any) impact their influence efforts had on the outcome of the election,” Brian Liston, a senior threat intelligence analyst at Recorded Future’s Insikt Group, told VOA via email.
“This evaluation can then be used to support future influence operations,” he added.