The most prominent threats facing the 2024 elections


The 2024 presidential election is likely to face a complex array of threats, from voter manipulation to physical violence, according to a new federal assessment, and authorities are already trying to figure out how to deal with them.

The confidential analysis, compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, identifies concerns about online activity that could threaten the legitimacy of the election, potential real-world plots that could lead to attacks — and the urgent need to thwart them in a timely manner.

“Threat actors intent on harming Americans through the use of violence may become more aggressive as Election Day approaches and may seek to engage in or incite violence at voting sites, government facilities, public meetings, ballot box locations, or private sector vendor locations. supports the election,” according to a DHS bulletin dated Jan. 2, obtained by ABC News.

PHOTO: In this December 11, 2014, file photo, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seal is seen hanging on a fence at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In this file photo taken on December 11, 2014, the seal of the US Department of Homeland Security is seen hanging on a fence at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The document notes that the risk looms far beyond security at local polling places, ranging from attempts to “intimidate election workers or election officials” to potential cyberattacks on “election infrastructure, campaigns, candidates, public officials, or political organizations.” “To foreigners. Influencing processes “designed to undermine” democratic processes and institutions, directing policy, influencing public opinion or sowing division.

The new assessment comes more than nine months before Election Day, when partisan tensions at home have already reached their peak, multiple wars are raging abroad, and political violence has already erupted abroad.

“We are heading into a very dangerous storm,” said John Cohen, the former intelligence chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now an ABC News contributor.

“This is not simply due to the fact that foreign and domestic threat actors will seek to exploit this election to advance their own ideological and geopolitical goals. We can also expect the political discourse associated with this election to become more polarized, more angry, and more divisive. And it is all these factors combined that matter to actors.” Law enforcement.”

The 2024 race has been marked by increasingly toxic rhetoric, a mix of campaign hyperbole and courtroom theatrics, with former President Donald Trump facing four criminal trials, and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. Additionally, experts say hate speech, misinformation and disinformation are rampant on social media, and the rapidly evolving technology remains vulnerable.

The bulletin notes that domestic extremists “are likely to remain emboldened” after the last presidential election, which was punctuated on January 6, 2021, with the insurrection at the US Capitol.

On both sides of the party, the major candidates are competing on some of the most divisive issues — from abortion, to the culture wars, to immigration at the southern border — that authorities suggest could be flashpoints.

“Elections involving candidates associated with issues that have historically led to violence — including COVID-19 mandates, restrictions on firearms, or access to abortion — face an increased threat environment,” the analysis said. “DHS is concerned with identifying and disrupting potential acts of violence committed by entities or individuals in retaliation for unfavorable pre- or post-election results.”

Election officials such as Maine Secretary of State Sheena Bellows, as well as the head of the federal government’s Election Security Agency and Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Jane Easterly, have been victims of swatting incidents, as have some officials overseeing and involved in Trump’s cases. . Separately, the FBI sent “numerous” bogus bomb threats in early January, sent to several secretaries of state and state legislatures.

“We are constantly vigilant – what is the tipping point?” said Elizabeth Newman, who was assistant secretary of Homeland Security during the early years of Trump’s presidency and is now an ABC News contributor. “There’s a barrage of threats coming from multiple vectors — and multiple components of the election infrastructure. It’s not just the voting machine — there are multiple parts to worry about.”

Photo: A voter fills out his or her ballot on January 23, 2024 in Loudoun, New Hampshire.

A voter fills out his ballot on January 23, 2024 in Loudoun, New Hampshire

Tasos Katopoudis/Getty Images

The complex interaction between state and local election systems also means “different potential threat vectors and areas for protection,” the DHS bulletin said.

Cyber ​​threat actors “seek to undermine the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of U.S. election infrastructure,” through phishing, IT disruption, credential harvesting, supply chain compromise, or brute force attacks, the bulletin said.

The document said cyberattacks on local election infrastructure “could have a greater impact on the ability of jurisdictions to conduct elections” — attacks “on the integrity of statewide voter registration, poll books, and election websites, as well as on ballot preparation and voting machines.” and scheduling systems.”

The analysis said threats may also target “civic agencies or organizations responsible for voter registration” or whose “infrastructure may fuel” those systems.

“These threats are not hypothetical. We have seen them happen. They may not have been to the extent that they disrupted the election. But they could still have profound impacts,” Newman said.

During the 2022 election cycle, the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center received at least 85 reports of malicious cyber activity from election offices across 56 state, local, tribal and territorial entities, attempting to “find and exploit cybersecurity vulnerabilities,” the bulletin said. .

“Just because we’ve supported important vulnerabilities doesn’t mean new vulnerabilities can’t be introduced,” Newman said. “The spectrum here is broad and expanding dramatically.”

Potential hackers’ incursions into election infrastructure aren’t the only threat lurking online: The document warns that the growing influence of false and misleading information online could influence voters’ minds even before they get to the polls.

The bulletin said foreign governments could attempt to “influence U.S. policy, distort political sentiment and public discourse, sow division, or undermine confidence in democratic processes and values ​​to achieve strategic goals,” and advised looking for “indicators that entities are producing or amplifying Misinformation about when, how, or where to vote, including providing inaccurate election dates or false claims about voting qualifications or methods.

Foreign actors may attempt to “influence American voters through psychological operations, infiltration of political parties, or covert dissemination of false or misleading information via social media or other means,” the document said.

Ahead of the nation’s first primary in New Hampshire earlier this month, a fake robocall appearing to impersonate President Joe Biden’s voice began circulating, encouraging voters not to go to the primary polls and to “save your vote” for the general. election.

“Your vote makes a difference in November, not this Tuesday,” the filing said, prompting the New Hampshire Attorney General to launch a criminal investigation.

“You don’t have to hack voter tabulation systems to disrupt an election,” Cohen said. “If a foreign adversary, or a terrorist group, can mislead voters in a way that influences their opinions and decisions before or as they enter the ballot box, those adversaries can influence the outcome of the election.”

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