By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY
WASHINGTON (AP) — Efforts to deceive the public about voting and elections remain a top concern for state election officials as they dig into preparations for the 2024 election.
Misinformation and the emergence of generative artificial intelligence tools to create false and misleading content were cited in interviews with several secretaries of state gathered recently for their national conference. Other top concerns were staffing and the loss of experienced leaders overseeing elections at the local level. The officials were gathered in Washington for the annual summer conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
“The cliché here is true,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat. “You hope for the best, but plan for the worst. So, we’re planning for the worst, which is that multiple communications channels will be filled with false and misleading information.”
State election officials in Michigan and Colorado said they were particularly concerned about the rise of AI and the implications of it being misused by foreign adversaries seeking to meddle in U.S. elections. They pointed to altered videos, known as deepfakes, that rely on facial mapping and AI to make it appear that real people are saying things they never said.
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said she convened a working group in her office to game out potential risks, after a 2020 presidential election that was marred by false claims and attacks on voting. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said state and federal regulations requiring disclosures of AI-generated content are needed along with boosting public awareness.
“We can’t necessarily put the genie back in the bottle, but we can educate citizens about how to receive that information,” said Benson, a Democrat. “And it becomes much easier if there are disclaimers alongside it that says, hey, this is fake.”
Some state election officials said they would not be deterred by a recent court order by a federal judge in Louisiana that limited federal agencies when it comes to contacting social media companies about content deemed false or deceptive with a few exceptions. On Friday, an appeals court temporarily paused the order.
“The injunction doesn’t apply to state officials, so I’m going to keep talking to whoever the hell I want to talk to,” said Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat. “If you know somebody is out there lying and it hurts voters, they’re literally telling voters the wrong day or the wrong places to vote, literally giving them bad information on purpose, you should be able to shut that down because that’s interfering with the voter’s right to vote.”
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and others pointed to various ways of combating misinformation that don’t involve communicating with social media companies. LaRose, a Republican, mentioned one instance in which his staff took a social media post that was spreading misinformation, added a “false” label across it and reposted it while contacting local news to ensure they were aware the original post was not true.
“We’ve worked to actively combat false information, but the way we do it is by spreading copious amounts of truth,” LaRose said.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, praised the federal court ruling and said he was more concerned about the federal government being the one to spread false information. He said he is supportive of efforts by House Republicans to investigate federal agencies over their activities before the 2020 presidential election.
“I think this is the big story going and it far outweighs all this other stuff that we’re talking about here at this conference with regards to cybersecurity and, you know, trusted sources, and on and on,” Warner said. “The federal government shouldn’t be in there telling Americans what they can and can’t hear, see, believe, Google, that sort of thing. So hopefully we’re gonna get it straightened out.”
Chris Krebs, the former director of the U.S. Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency during the Trump administration, has defended the work his agency did in 2020. In a social media post after the court order, Krebs said his agency only connected state and local election officials with social media companies and did not filter or review any content.
Officials in Pennsylvania and Kentucky both cited staffing as a concern. In Pennsylvania, there has been considerable turnover among those overseeing local elections, driven largely by retirements and increased stress. Al Schmidt, a Republican appointed as Pennsylvania’s chief election official, said the risks are many and the margin for error is small.
“The most dangerous thing is when you lose experienced election workers, you lose institutional memory, you lose all that experience, and it’s replaced by people who are less experienced and who are more likely to make a mistake — and to make a mistake in an environment where every mistake is being perceived as being deliberate or malicious,” he said.
The multi-day conference was the first since several Republicans announced plans earlier this year to leave a bipartisan effort aimed at improving the accuracy of voter lists and identifying fraud, prompting consternation from their Democratic counterparts.
The decisions were made as the Electronic Registration Information Center, more commonly known as ERIC, was targeted by conspiracy theories surrounding its funding and purpose. Republicans cited other reasons for their exit and have been working on an alternate system for sharing data among individual states.
Several Democratic officials said they were uninterested in any alternative to the ERIC system, which still includes a few Republican-led states. They expressed hope that large-population states like California and New York, which are not currently part of ERIC, will join.
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, said he is exploring his state’s options. A court order requires the state to participate in ERIC, according to Adams, but several surrounding states and Florida, where many of his state’s residents retire, are leaving or do not participate.
“Even if ERIC were hunky-dory, I still need to find ways to get information from 30-plus states that aren’t in ERIC,” Adams said.
The conference largely avoided controversial subjects during panel discussions, focused instead on sharing best practices. Several officials said partisan divisions are set aside so they can collaborate on improving elections.
Warner said a Michigan official approached him to talk about efforts in West Virginia to improve voting among active-duty military, and Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab said he planned to talk with his staff about plans to assist voters with hearing impairments after learning of Minnesota’s efforts.
“There’s still so much more that we agree on than what we disagree on,” said New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat. “And we’re all a bunch of thieves at the end of the day — we steal ideas from each other and it’s like that’s a really cool program, I want to do that in my state.”