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Election Security After Mueller's Exit


What special counsel Robert Mueller said last week is going to stay with many people for a long time.


ROBERT MUELLER: There were multiple systematic efforts to interfere in our election, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.

SIMON: NPR's Miles Parks covers election security and joins us in our studios. Miles, thanks so much for being with us.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Yeah, absolutely.

SIMON: Of course, you watched the special counsel's statement. You've been following the investigation since it began. What did you notice you'd like to draw attention to today?

PARKS: Well, what I saw from special counsel Mueller's statement was a man who might be slightly exhausted by all this talk about obstruction and impeachment. Politically speaking, President Trump is going to be out of office in two or six years, regardless of what happens. I think special counsel Mueller really tried to drive home this idea that American democracy might be changed forever by what we saw leading up to 2016. Social media campaigns are still going on to try and polarize the American public. And the voting system - the American electoral infrastructure - is still this giant, huge target that hasn't been all that improved since 2016.

SIMON: Let's stay with that because Congress did allocate, I guess it was, $400 million for election security, didn't they?

PARKS: They did indeed. But I think it's important for people to think about the American ecosystem of voting as a lot more than just protecting the ballot box. You think about all the different ways that voters interact with democracy. You have to go online to a website and check where your polling place is. You want to go on the Internet, and you want to see from a media organization what the results were, what the margin of victory is. And you want to make sure when you go to your polling place that that data is correct and that you're going to be able to get in and out of there efficiently.

All of these different aspects, which have nothing to do with the actual tabulation of votes - they also offer cyberattackers a way to get in there and cause mischief in American democracy that are a lot easier because a lot of them are connected to the Internet.

SIMON: What has been done since 2016 to try and circumvent some of the problems?

PARKS: There is a lot that has been done. As you mentioned, Congress allocated this money to improve election security, and statehouses have begun to take this as a bigger priority, as well. The Department of Homeland Security's also stepped up their efforts to monitor cyber threats and communicate with the states and localities.

But we've also seen a lot of holes here. We heard in the last couple weeks - Florida election officials hearing for the first time that some localities were broken into, that their - that election supervisors' offices were broken into by cyberattackers. And they were hearing it for the first time last month. There was also a report last week about an Iranian campaign to push polarization into the American discourse on social media. So that is still going on.

SIMON: And as you're saying, it's not just Russia.

PARKS: No, it's not. A lot of experts I've talked to are really worried about Iran's role and North Korea's role looking ahead to election interference in 2020 and beyond. I think one of the big takeaways from special counsel Mueller's report was that this activity is just really cheap to do. We know that the Internet Research Agency, which was Russia's cyber propaganda arm, was spending about a million dollars a month at the peak of their activity. That might sound like a lot of money, but if you think about it in the grand picture of military activity, that is nothing. The barrier to entry to this sort of...

SIMON: You can't get a shortstop for a million dollars a month these days.

PARKS: (Laughter) That's absolutely true. It's nothing when it comes to major league baseball salaries. But for a foreign country, if they want to interfere in America's politics, that is a really low barrier to entry there. And so there's just no reason at this point to think this won't continue from other countries other than Russia in 2020 and beyond.

SIMON: NPR's Miles Park. Thanks so much for being with us.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.