By Sean Lyngaas, CNN
Federal officials are offering state and local election officials training to “safely de-escalate” confrontations with voters that could turn violent ahead of November’s midterm elections, according to an email to election workers obtained by CNN.
The move underlines the level of concern ahead of the upcoming elections and comes in response to a steady stream of violent threats and harassment that election officials have faced since the 2020 election, much of it from people who falsely claim that the vote was marred by fraud.
The training includes “non-confrontational techniques” for dealing with angry voters as well as how to determine if an “emergency response” is needed or if law enforcement should be alerted, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said in an email this week to election industry workers.
CISA encouraged election officials to contact the agency for in-person or virtual training, because “personal safety is paramount.”
“The current environment is arguably much more complex than it’s ever been for election officials, who are doing the important work of securing their election infrastructure and protecting our democracy,” Kim Wyman, CISA’s senior election security lead, said in a statement to CNN. “This includes unprecedented levels of threats and harassment targeting election officials.”
Election officials and their advocacy groups have repeatedly asked US officials for more support in dealing with harassment and the disinformation that inspires it as the midterms approach. The FBI doesn’t have a full picture of the violent threats facing election officials because of flaws in the reporting process, a representative of an election officials’ group told Congress in August.
The threats have forced many election workers to quit their jobs and intensified pressure on those still working as the biggest election since Donald Trump’s 2020 loss approaches.
Election workers have reported over 1,000 interactions with the public that they considered hostile or threatening to a Justice Department task force, but that is likely just a fraction of the threatening behavior that has occurred since 2020.
The new training is being released after CISA rejected a multimillion proposal from a contractor to protect election workers from harassment in part because of legal concerns and questions about the plan’s efficacy, CNN reported last week. Two election officials appealed to the Homeland Security secretary to approve part of the plan “before these efforts of intimidation worsen in the lead up” to the November midterms.
Concerns about violence related to the election also came up in a classified briefing that officials from the FBI and DHS held Thursday with election officials across the country, according to multiple people familiar with the briefing.
The briefing — one of several that US officials have held for election workers in recent years — did not reveal any notable new threats to US elections, according to the people. But it did underscore that Russia and China continue to use influence operations and other tactics to try to divide voters or shape US public opinion as the midterms approach, the sources said.
Ransomware attacks — which have hampered state and local government services in recent years — were also mentioned in the briefing, the people familiar with it said. Amid concerns that ransomware could disrupt election-related infrastructure ahead of the 2020 election, major tech companies like Microsoft and US Cyber Command, the military’s offensive cyber unit, tried to knock parts of one ransomware group’s infrastructure offline.
Some private analysts have echoed US officials’ warnings about foreign influence operations before the November vote.
Russia is “very likely” to conduct influence operations aimed at US organizations before the midterm elections, according to a new analysis that threat intelligence firm Recorded Future shared with CNN. An online persona affiliated with a Russian troll farm that interfered in the 2016 US election has reemerged in recent months on Gab, a platform popular with far-right conservatives, to post about the integrity of US elections, the analysis found.
China’s interference activities will likely target US congressional candidates, while the magnitude of Iranian influence operations could hinge on the status of talks with the US to revive a nuclear deal, the analysis said.
Examples of those types of influence operations have dribbled into public view in recent weeks.
Meta-owned Facebook shut down a network of fake accounts originating from China that posed as Americans on both sides of the political spectrum, the social media giant said this week.
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