65 Items

Workers prepare mail-in ballots for counting, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, at the convention center in Lancaster, Pa., following Tuesday's election.

AP Photo/Julio Cortez


The Pandemic Election

  • Anna Sakellariadis
| April 2021

Mis and disinformation thrive by capturing imaginations through obfuscation, oversimplification, and speculation. In contrast, this report documents and analyzes five key areas related to the shifting information threat landscape in the 2020 U.S. general election with clarity, in their complexity, and on the basis of rigorously collected data. Our goal is to provide relevant insights for future elections in an evolving information and threat landscape.

Voters mark their ballots during early voting at the Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Report - Defending Digital Democracy

Beyond 2020: Policy Recommendations for the Future of Election Security

| February 2021

The 2020 election presents a paradox. Despite dramatic changes to the election process due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly complex threats since the 2016 election, 2020 is widely regarded as “the most secure [election] in American history.” Operationally, it was also one of the smoothest. State and local election officials overcame unprecedented challenges and scarce resources to administer an election with fewer incidents of cyber compromises, technical failures or long lines than anticipated. After Election Day, recount procedures functioned as designed. Yet, amidst these successes, officials from both parties faced a barrage of mis- and disinformation about the election process that served to undermine confidence in the result.

Though the election security ecosystem survived the triple threat of cybersecurity, physical security, and mis- and disinformation in 2020, this success will prove to be hard to replicate in future election cycles without proper investment and reinforcement.

D3P Helps Safeguard 2020 Elections

| Fall 2020

A number of factors in the fall of 2020 made it easier for agents of disinformation to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election process and results—before, during, and after election day. Working to thwart them, however, was an army of well-trained election officials. Much of their training was carried out by the Belfer Center’s Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P). 

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Policy Brief - Defending Digital Democracy

Final Week Cybersecurity Considerations: Top Takeaways

October 2020

This election has already faced threats from cyber adversaries seeking to influence its outcome. The joint CISA-FBI alert confirming Russian state-sponsored activity targeting government networks on October 22 builds on other advisories around potential cyberattacks on election systems ahead of the election, including advisories of DDOS attacks against election infrastructure.

Making unplanned or last-minute changes ahead of election day can introduce serious risks, especially given the short window to test changes. Here are some considerations as you work to address and prepare to counter potential cyber threats.

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Policy Brief - Defending Digital Democracy

Mis/ Disinformation and Cyber Incident Communications Response: Top Takeaways

October 2020

The top priority in a cyber crisis or in the face of mis and disinformation, will be to maintain public trust. The most effective way to achieve that goal is to respond confidently and quickly. Although response to both types of incidents will differ, there are a number of common best practices you can apply in your preparation ahead of election day.  This summary guide helps detail common and specific responses to each type of incident. 

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Policy Brief - Defending Digital Democracy

Elections Battle Staff Communications: Top Takeaways

October 2020

Especially when teams are unable to rely on physical co-location during a pandemic, it is important to have contingency plans in place. Ahead of election day, make sure you have a back-up plan to keep communications going. Choose reliable communication methods and prioritize them in terms of effectiveness and ease of use.  Doing a “communications check” is something you can do up to election day.

A woman casts her ballot on the first day of early voting in a recently-shuttered store at Oak Park Mall Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in Overland Park, Kan.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Announcement - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Iran’s Reported Election Meddling: How We Can Defend Against Influence Operations

| Oct. 22, 2020

In light of these tactics and known interference, we must seek authoritative sources of information throughout this election season, report incidents that seem to confuse voting facts, and recognize our own role in responding to these types of attacks.

A staff member in the Kweisi Mfume campaign uses gloves while holding a cell phone during an election night news conference at his campaign headquarters after Mfume, a Democrat, won Maryland’s 7th Congressional District special election, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Baltimore.

AP Photo/Julio Cortez


The Election Influence Operations Playbook, Part 1

| September 2020

Influence Operations (IO), also known as Information Operations, are a series of warfare tactics historically used to collect information, influence, or disrupt the decision making of an adversary. IO strategies intentionally disseminate information to manipulate public opinion and/or influence behavior. IO can involve a number of tactics, including spreading false information intentionally. This is known as “disinformation.”   

Skilled influence operations often deliberately spread disinformation in highly public places like social media. This is done in the hope that people who have no connection to the operation will mistakenly share this disinformation. Inaccurate information spread in error without malicious intent is known as “misinformation.” 

This playbook explores mis- and disinformation incidents that specifically focus on elections operations and infrastructure. Election officials may not often see or know what the motivation is behind the incidents encountered or whether they are mis- or disinformation. Throughout these guides we refer to mis/disinformation incidents together, as the strategies for countering or responding to them are the same.  

Voters wait in a line outside Broad Ripple High School to vote in the Indiana primary in Indianapolis, Tuesday, June 2, 2020 after coronavirus concerns prompted officials to delay the primary from its original May 5 date.

AP Photo/Michael Conroy


The Election Influence Operations Playbook, Part 2

| September 2020

This section of the Playbook includes recommendations and materials focused on the response process. It will help election officials respond to election-related mis and disinformation incidents quickly and in a coordinated fashion. 

In this playbook, we refer to mis/disinformation throughout as one concept. Instances of both misinformation and disinformation in the elections process provide incorrect information to voters. Incorrect information can be conveyed intentionally or unintentionally. For election officials, any incorrect information, regardless of source or intention, presented to voters can pose a threat to elections, because it can undermine voters’ understanding of and trust in the election.

In this April 22, 2020 photo, Gerard Bakulikira, right, and captain Tim Daghelet, left, both wear a Romware COVID Radius digital bracelet, which flashes red when people are too close to each other and creates a log of contacts. 

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo


Considerations for Digital Contact Tracing Tools for COVID-19 Mitigation: Recommendations for Stakeholders and Policymakers

Many are looking to digital contact tracing to assist reopening efforts, especially in light of reports that the U.S. could expect as many as 100,000 more deaths due to the virus by this Fall. This report focuses on how the U.S. might consider various proposed solutions.

We believe there are real benefits, challenges, and even potential harms in using digital solutions in the fight against COVID-19, but we must also acknowledge that the promise of any technology and associated systems to assist manual contact tracing efforts is largely hypothetical in the United States. There is not one catch-all answer; the truth is that technology is not a panacea, but it may be able to assist official efforts at an unprecedented time. However, no technological solution can succeed without two specific factors: public trust and buy-in, and rapid, widespread testing for everyone living in the U.S. To achieve the first, a number of factors must be addressed by officials in the states looking to implement digital solutions, and by technology developers.