CINCINNATI — Ohio cybersecurity experts believe voters are vulnerable to threats as they prepare to cast their ballots in the November election.
The Ohio Cyber Range Institute, based at the University of Cincinnati, is working on fighting those threats and protecting critical election infrastructure.
As November approaches, Ohio Cyber Range researchers said they see two types of threats on the horizon: Voter manipulation through social media and efforts to fuel doubt in election results.
"What we see behind the scenes are actors who are making certain things viral,” said Richard Harknett, the institute's co-director and head of UC’s political science department. “They use 'bot nets' to drive likes and dislikes to get things in front of us that, really, the majority of people are not clicking on."
Harknett said he also believes Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are trying to leverage the coronavirus pandemic to create skepticism of election results by exploiting changes in vote-by-mail processes and delays. He said there is already evidence of this as results came in during May primaries.
In Middletown, barber Jmel Melson said he is talking to customers about politics now more than ever, but voter fraud isn’t something on the top of people’s minds.
"I haven't seen any type of evidence of fraud at all,” he said. "I know it's out there, but I think if we use our right to vote and exercise our right to vote, that will wipe all that away and everybody will have their vote out there."
Harknett’s group is working with Ohio Secretary of State Frank Larose to get ahead of potential fraud in this fall's election. Larose’s office plans to send out mass mailings with early, mail and in-person voting options.
"As we get towards Labor Day and early voting in the states around our neighborhoods, you're going to hear this kind of messaging," Harknett said. "One of the things we are advising is to get out in front of this message, explain the process."
He said explaining the process will be critical to fight conspiracy theories that cause doubt. Early messaging on things like delays in results will show voters that election officials are being extra careful and should stop the fear that something has gone wrong.
"So that people become comfortable with the notion that if we need extra time to count, that's not a problem,” Harknett said. “It's actually us being careful and making sure that their vote is legitimately counted."
He said another challenge to the voting process is politics itself, and those divisions are even deeper during the pandemic.
"We've got a lot of partisanship, right? We've got people who are strongly favoring the Democrats, strongly favoring the Republicans or individual candidates," Harknett said. "Those divisions are ripe for people to try to drive us into our own little camps and not actually have the information we need to have to make good decisions."
In order to combat this, Harknett said his advice is to read news from the “other side,” or articles that you don’t agree with, at least once a week.