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As Americans Fear Foreign Interference, Federal Agencies Work To Secure Elections


Millions of Americans are not confident that the 2020 elections will be fair and accurate. That is one finding of a new NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll on election security. Forty-four percent - that is nearly half of those who answered the poll - say it is likely many votes won't be counted. A similar share says the nation is not prepared to safeguard the election from foreign interference. And most Americans blame President Trump for not doing enough, despite massive efforts by government agencies since 2016 to secure the upcoming elections. NPR's Pam Fessler has more on that.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Late last year, an election official in a small Texas county got a curious phone call. Someone claimed to be from Hart InterCivic, the vendor who supplied the county's voting machines. The caller asked about sensitive security measures and tried to get the official to log into unfamiliar websites.

SAM DERHEIMER: And she didn't know the person on the other side of the phone, and red flags were raised immediately.

FESSLER: Sam Derheimer of Hart says the local official immediately called the company with her concerns. Hart then contacted the Department of Homeland Security, which issued an alert through an information-sharing group that includes election officials and vendors around the country.

DERHEIMER: It really laid out the incident as best we knew it, what had occurred and what to be wary of.

FESSLER: It turns out the woman was unknowingly the target of a security firm hired by her county to test its cyberdefenses. But for those who run elections, the quick national response was a sign of just how much progress has been made since Russia attacked the 2016 elections.

CHRISTOPHER KREBS: An election official that three or four years ago would have probably just blindly and blithely followed the instructions now is like, wait a second; that doesn't sound right.

FESSLER: Christopher Krebs is pretty happy about that. He runs the agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with helping to secure elections. Krebs isn't surprised that voters are worried about what might happen this year, with all the reports of social media disinformation campaigns and a wave of ransomware attacks against local governments. But Krebs thinks voters should be more confident than they are.

KREBS: The federal government is working together on this singular issue - election security - frankly, better than any other issue that I've ever seen.

FESSLER: And by all accounts, that's true. Officials at all levels of government, vendors and security experts have conducted countless training sessions and tabletop exercises. They've spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading equipment.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose says he's on the phone with federal security officials almost every day.

FRANK LAROSE: Whether it's myself personally or a member of our IT team, we work with DHS, hand in glove.

FESSLER: Indeed, a majority of Americans think the intelligence community has done a lot since 2016 to protect against another attack. But the new poll also finds that many voters are worried about the impact of the man in charge. Fifty-six percent say President Trump has not done enough to make sure the elections are safe and secure. A slight majority thinks he actually encourages foreign interference.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says Trump's repeated comments downplaying the Russian threat are not helpful.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Because a president who got out there and really encouraged investment in the security would be, again, a positive factor. But I think that it's not deterring the people who are actually doing the work from carrying it out.

FESSLER: Still, most election officials agree the biggest threat isn't necessarily someone tampering with votes but causing enough confusion to undermine public trust in the process. President Trump's repeated claims without evidence that there's widespread voter fraud only adds to the challenge.

Judd Choate is Colorado's election director.

JUDD CHOATE: My biggest concern in 2020 is that regardless of outcome, we will be faced with, somewhere around the end of the first week in November, this concern by half of the country that they lost the election illegitimately.

FESSLER: One reason security officials are encouraging the widespread use of paper ballots, which can be audited afterwards to boost voter confidence in the results.

For his part, Christopher Krebs insists he's getting all the White House support he needs and that President Trump is not impeding the government's work.

KREBS: We all know what's at stake here, and it's defending democracy. It's protecting 2020. And I think the American people need to have confidence that we take this seriously.

FESSLER: Although he has one caveat that there's no such thing as a hundred percent security. Krebs says voters also have a role in protecting elections by knowing their rights and how to vote and by being careful about what information they do and do not choose to believe.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.