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With 2020 Called A Success, Big Questions Lie Ahead For Election Security

After a highly fraught but largely interference-free election, there are big questions for the future of election security.
Marcus Marritt for NPR
After a highly fraught but largely interference-free election, there are big questions for the future of election security.

The 2020 elections ran well and were largely free from foreign interference, U.S. officials say.

That doesn't mean the story is over.

Improving elections practices is a "race without a finish line," as Pennsylvania's secretary of state told NPR in 2019, and big questions remain about what's to become of the fast maturing but still partly formed discipline of election security.

A range of pending decisions, moves and countermoves now stands between governments, voters and their ballots in upcoming races, meaning the environment likely will continue to evolve even as the big players — the United States, Russia, China and others — likely stay the same.

Here are some of the unresolved issues as the clock begins to tick toward Americans voting again in large numbers, including in important U.S. Senate runoff elections early next year in Georgia.

What happened in 2020?

Although this year's presidential race was declared secure and successful, there was some mischief, including cases announced by the leaders of the intelligence community such as intimidating emails traced to Iran and cyberattacks blamed on Russia.

How much else remains undiscovered by cyberspecialists or not revealed publicly by authorities?

Revelations about Russia's cyberattacks on the 2016 presidential election dribbled out for years with subsequent discoveries and in later reports. It isn't clear whether outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe might prepare an "intelligence community assessment" on 2020's activity — as his predecessor released in early 2017 on 2016's activity — or whether a congressional committee might attempt something similar or whether the new administration might.

Detailing the extent of this year's activity, such as it was, might give a more nuanced view of the successes claimed by elections leaders, who said this month that the 2020 race was "the most secure in American history."

One big specific question posed by U.S. officials but never addressed fully was about the interference efforts of China. A top Justice Department official suggested there was more taking place than he could discuss in the open. How much of that was real, and how much was part of what critics called a political strategy to spread blame away from Russia?

What's in store for U.S.-Russia relations?

Foreign interference is as old as statecraft, but the huge spike that afflicted the 2016 election was a deliberate move by Russia's government to bring about what it hoped would be a more sympathetic administration in Washington following tensions over eastern Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin felt that the United States was interfering in his own front yard — and probably also Russia's internal politics — after U.S. and European condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Accordingly, Putin wanted someone other than Hillary Clinton, whom he considered too hawkish, to become president.

Putin believes President-elect Joe Biden belongs to Clinton's school of European and foreign policy, and Russia's comparatively subdued efforts to interfere in the 2020 election were aimed at hurting Biden, U.S intelligence officials said.

So the question about Russian attacks and American countermoves now fits into that broader context of statecraft. The last time Biden worked in the White House, as vice president to President Barack Obama, he pushed for a "reset" with Russia following the chill between Washington and Moscow under President George W. Bush.

That is likely not in the cards this time.

Biden vowed during the presidential campaign that Russia and other nations would face consequences for interfering in U.S. elections, although he stopped short of spelling out what he had in mind. Russian scheming in 2020 also specifically targeted Biden's own family — the Treasury Department sanctioned a Ukrainian member of parliament it said was acting as an agent of Moscow — making the issue personal.

So continuing to defend American networks and other aspects of election security will be only a part of a new chapter in the long saga of the fraught dynamic between Moscow and the West. Attack and defense will be downstream of the diplomatic interplay between the two powers.

What's to become of the Department of Homeland Security?

Some of the unresolved outlook for election security depends on unresolved political questions in Washington. January's U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia will determine which political party controls the World's Greatest Deliberative Body and, very likely, how ambitious Biden and the Democrats can be.

Critics angry about what they call the cruelty and misuse of the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump era want Biden to take action — to smash the agency, or reorganize it, so that it can't handle immigration or domestic protests as it did.

DHS has many election security responsibilities in coordination with the FBI and other agencies, including via its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

If Republicans preserve their majority in the Senate, they'll likely serve as a brake on any proposal to abolish or greatly restructure the legacy DHS, which already has endured a great deal of churn since it was created after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

If Democrats gain a majority in the Senate, that would put them — with their House majority and Biden as president — in a position to contemplate bigger changes. Members of Congress to Biden's left might pressure him to abolish DHS and potentially even create a stand-alone federal agency to take more responsibility for elections, as proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The nature of the proposals and the prospect for change could dictate what follows — and whether U.S. officials are in an even stronger position than they say they were this year or whether a big shake-up might still be underway by, for example, the 2022 midterm elections.

What will become of the U.S. information environment?

If foreign interference boils down to two broad strategies, changing ballots or changing minds, 2020 brought another reminder about how much simpler it is to defend election infrastructure, including databases, machines and other equipment.

Americans' minds and beliefs are a different story.

Falsehoods and misinformation on every topic spread freely on social media. That can affect people's behavior in important ways.

Americans choose not to vaccinate their children against measles; they poison themselves with chemicals wrongly believed to prevent coronavirus infection; and significant numbers of them told pollsters they don't believe the election was free or fair.

The paradox in 2020 was that even years of public reports on election interference and a sustained stream of false claims by President Trump about alleged "fraud" didn't prompt people to opt out. Quite the opposite: Americans turned out in record numbers.

So sometimes what people say they believe doesn't always determine what they actually do. Other times it does. When, looking ahead, might that prove consequential?

For example: Will Republican officeholders preserve practices intended to expand access to voting during the coronavirus pandemic — or will Trump-backed false beliefs about "fraud" prove too durable to make that politically possible?

Will members of Congress in a new administration agree on legislation that could compel social media platforms to change their practices? Can public officials do more to address voters directly?

David Levine, the elections integrity fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, called for a new presidential commission that would include officials from state and local governments. Its goal, he said, should be to quash false perceptions and sell Americans on their own system.

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.