Counterterrorism experts: Threats to election security won’t subside after ballots are cast

Nov. 8, 2022, 10 a.m. ·

Vote Stickers
I voted stickers are seen at a polling place (Associated Press)

Election officials in Nebraska and across the country are still working to restore trust in local and national elections following pervasive conspiracy theories in the 2020 presidential election.

Claims of stolen ballots and defunct ballot-counting machines helped fuel mistrust in the election process. Even though local and national leaders have debunked the widely spread conspiracy theories, counterterrorism experts believe security threats could increase following the midterm election.

“Our adversaries, particularly state-sponsored actors – Iran, Russia and China – are ready to go with a message that degrades our trust in the election, no matter what the outcome is,” Gina Ligon said.

Ligon leads the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center, or NCITE, in Omaha. Ligon and her team of researchers partner with the federal government to track domestic and international security threats.

She said whether Jim Pillen or Carol Blood wins the governor’s election, for example, supporters of the losing party may be targeted by hostile online messages and claims of election distrust.

“The disinformation is ready to go on Nov. 9, no matter what happens on Nov. 8,” Ligon said. “That bodes a lot of instability, because if you don’t perceive that you have a voice in your government, you’re much more likely to support violence or other means to get your voice heard.”

UNO's Gina Ligon.PNG
Gina Ligon is the director of UNO's National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center. (Chris Flanery, Nebraska Public Media)

NCITE researcher and professor at Chapman University, Pete Simi, said he also sees signs of threats increasing, especially on social media channels.

“The online digital spaces create a whole layer to this problem,” Simi said. He said he recently reported threatening online posts he found on the social media site Telegram that targeted a mayor in the southeastern part of the U.S. “It’s not that hard to find those kinds of threats on these platforms.”

Simi said people who come across similar messages should share those with law enforcement agencies immediately.

“There's a big difference between asking tough questions, voicing opposition and saying that you're going to go to a public official’s home,” Simi said. “These kinds of statements where you're clearly expressing intent to harm one or more people is very different from expressing opposition to a particular policy or program.”

The FBI’s Omaha office is the primary law enforcement agency responsible for investigating election crimes. It announced in October the 18-month sentencing of a Lincoln man who posted messages on an Instagram account of an elected official.

Court documents show 42-year-old Travis Ford posted, “Your security detail is far too thin and incompetent to protect you. This world is unpredictable these days. Anything can happen to anyone.”

The plea agreement indicated Ford’s motive stemmed from false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Disinformation claims from the 2020 election spurred the creation of the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force in 2021.

The Omaha branch declined to say if it’s investigating any current reports of election threats, but said it’s working with local and state officials to monitor potential threats.

Gina Ligon said that although she’s monitoring large-scale threats from countries overseas, she feels confident in both local and national elections. Her recent work even pushed her to volunteer as a poll worker for the Nov. 8 election. She said the two-hour training she, and every other poll worker, underwent gave her an extra sense of security in the election operations.

“It also makes me as a poll worker take the seriousness to heart,” Ligon said. “It’s an incredible amount of work that has gone into making our election secure and safe.”