Efforts to mislead the public about the election and the voting process remain a major concern for state election officials as they prepare for the 2024 election.
Disinformation, and specifically the emergence of generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools to create false and misleading content, were mentioned in interviews with several secretaries of state who recently met at their national conference. Other main concerns were the lack of personnel and the loss of experienced leaders in charge of supervising the elections at the local level. The officials met at the annual summer conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
“The cliché here is true. You hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst. So we are preparing for the worst, which is that multiple channels of communication will be filled with false and misleading information,” said Steve Simon, Secretary of State. from Minnesota.
State election officials in Michigan and Colorado said they were particularly concerned about the rise of artificial intelligence and the implications of its misuse by foreign adversaries seeking to intervene in US elections. They pointed to doctored videos, known as deepfakeswhich rely on facial mapping and artificial intelligence to make it look like real people are saying things they never said.
Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state, said she has convened a task force in her office to look at potential risks, following a 2020 presidential election that was marred by false claims and attacks on voting. Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, said state and federal regulations requiring the disclosure of AI-generated content are needed, along with increased public awareness.
“We can’t necessarily put the genie back in the bottle, but we can educate citizens on how to receive that information. And it becomes a lot easier if there are waivers next to it that say, hey, this is false,” Benson said.
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 from contacting social media companies about content deemed false or misleading, with a few exceptions. On Friday, an appeals court temporarily stayed the order.
“The injunction doesn’t apply to state officials, so I’ll keep talking to whoever the hell wants to talk to. If you know someone is lying and hurting voters, they are literally telling them the wrong day or the wrong places to vote, giving them information wrong on purpose, you should be able to stop that because that interferes with the voter’s right to vote,” said Adrian Fontes, Arizona’s secretary of state, a Democrat.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and other public officials cited several ways to combat misinformation that don’t involve reaching out to social media companies. LaRose cited a case in which his staff took a social media post that was spreading misinformation, tagged it with “false” and reposted it while reaching out to local media outlets to make sure they knew the story was wrong. original post was not true.
“We have worked to actively combat false information, but we do it by spreading a great deal of the truth,” LaRose said.
Mac Warner, West Virginia’s secretary of state, praised the federal court’s decision, saying he was more concerned that the federal government was the one spreading false information. He said he supports efforts by House Republicans to investigate federal agencies for their activities ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
“I think this is the big story that’s going on and it far exceeds all the other things that we’re talking about here at this conference in terms of cybersecurity, trusted sources, and so on,” Warner said. “The federal government shouldn’t be telling Americans what they can and can’t hear, see, believe or Google, that kind of thing. So I hope we fix it,” he added.
Chris Krebs, the former director of the US Cyber Infrastructure Security Agency during the Trump administration, has defended the work his agency did in 2020. In a social media post following the court order, Krebs said his agency was only connecting state and local election officials with social media companies and did not filter or review any content.
Officials in Pennsylvania and Kentucky cited understaffing as a concern. In Pennsylvania, there has been considerable turnover among those who oversee local elections, driven in large part by retirements and increased stress. Al Schmidt, a Republican appointed as Pennsylvania’s top election official, said the stakes are high and the margin for error small.
“The most dangerous thing is when you lose experienced poll workers, you lose institutional memory, you lose all that experience, and it’s replaced by people who are less experienced and more prone to making mistakes, and making mistakes in an environment where every mistake is perceived as deliberate or malicious,” he said.
The multi-day conference was the first since several Republicans announced plans earlier this year to drop a bipartisan effort aimed at improving the accuracy of voter rolls and detecting fraud, sparking consternation among their Democratic counterparts.
The decisions were made when the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) was the subject of conspiracy theories related to its funding and purpose. Republicans cited other reasons for their departure and have been working on an alternative system for sharing data between individual states.
Several Democratic officials said they were not interested in any alternative to the ERIC system, which still includes some Republican-led states. They expressed the hope that states with large populations like California and New York, which are not currently part of ERIC, would join.
Michael Adams, Kentucky’s Secretary of State, a Republican, said he is exploring his state’s options. According to Adams, a court order requires the state to participate in ERIC, but several neighboring states and Florida, where many residents of his state retire, are dropping out or not participating.
“Even if ERIC is perfect, I still need to find ways to get information from the 30+ states that are not in ERIC,” Adams said.
The conference mostly avoided controversial topics during panel discussions, focusing instead on sharing best practices. Several officials said they put aside partisan divisions in order to help improve elections.
Warner said he was approached by a Michigan official about efforts in West Virginia to improve voting among active duty military, and Scott Schwab, Kansas Secretary of State, said he planned to speak with his staff about the plans. to help hearing impaired voters after learning about Minnesota’s efforts.
“There’s still a lot we agree on compared to what we disagree on,” said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the New Mexico Secretary of State, a Democrat. “And at the end of the day, we’re all a bunch of crooks — we steal each other’s ideas and it’s like ‘that’s a really cool show, I want to do that in my state.'”
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