How secure is your vote from fraud, mischief and cyberattacks?

One of the most recent examples of President Donald Trump's string of claims regarding mail-in ballots came during the first presidential debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden when he said voting by mail will lead to a "rigged election" and will amount to "a fraud like you've never seen."

We've been hearing this line of attack from the president ever since the coronavirus began forcing election officials nationwide to rethink how voters can safely cast a ballot during a pandemic. In May, he tweeted, "Mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud and abuse."

But historically speaking, there really isn't much evidence to support the claim.

"In modern American elections, voter fraud is pretty close to zero," said Lawrence Norden, the director of the Election Reform Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

"A person is more likely to get struck by lightning than they are to commit voter fraud," he added.

But let's say for the sake of argument that lightning does, in fact, strike.

"Even in the extremely rare instance where somebody attempts something like that, it's going to be caught," Norden said.

Mail-in ballots almost always have several layers of security, including secondary secrecy envelopes with unique barcodes. That envelope must be sealed and, generally, signed, as well. Your signature is then verified, and your personal information will be checked to ensure you're actually a registered voter.

"In addition, virtually every state and certainly every battleground state in the U.S. this year has what's called ballot tracking," Norden pointed out. "This is the same thing you get when you order a package on Amazon."

New York City and New Jersey both have that feature. Connecticut is one of a handful of states that does not.

"You [will] know what's happened to your ballot up to the point where it's been counted," Norden said. 

Even the president's own FBI director testified before Congress in September, saying the United States has "not seen historically any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in an election, whether it's by mail or otherwise."

But that hasn't stopped the president from making allegations. In fact, Attorney General Bill Barr, the nation's top law enforcement officer, is facing criticism that he is bringing the U.S. Department of Justice into campaign politics by echoing the unproven claims.

"Elections that have been held with mail have had substantial fraud and coercion," Barr told CNN in early September.

Seth DuCharme, one of Barr's closest advisers who also happens to be the man Barr this summer chose as the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said he believes paper ballots are vulnerable. In his position as the top federal prosecutor for the more than 8 million residents in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island, DuCharme is the person who would prosecute election-related crimes, including ballot fraud.

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Does he acknowledge that, in the past, voter fraud has been a "relatively small" problem, as many experts say?

"I think I'm not going to try to prepare for the threats of the past," DuCharme said in his first on-camera interview since taking the position. "I think I need to prepare for the potential threats of the present and future."

DuCharme stressed that it's "extremely important" people have confidence in the government institutions and confidence in the election. DuCharme said he is confident in a secure election this year.

"It doesn't mean there won't be mischief," he added. And mischief comes in many forms, he said, and he treats them all equally.

So what is a bigger threat: Meddling with paper ballots or cyberattacks?

"We have to be prepared for all of them, frankly," DuCharme said. "The way I look at it, we need to take all those threats seriously."

In June, the president tweeted: "Millions of mail-in ballots will be printed by foreign countries."

Asked if he is concerned a foreign adversary may print paper ballots, DuCharme said simply, "Sure, why not?"

"It wouldn't be hard. It's as easy as your local Kinkos or a color copier to cook something up that might create some confusion," DuCharme said.

NYU's Norden had a different take.

"Anything is possible, but there is no way that wouldn't be caught," Norden said. "I can say of all the schemes I've heard in recent years, that is probably the most preposterous."

But to be clear, foreign adversaries are absolutely a concern; just a different type of concern.

"We had actual cyberattacks against our infrastructure in 2016. We've seen some foreign adversaries hack into election systems in other countries and attempt to change election results," Norden said. "[A cyberattack] is a real risk, and it's a risk on a scale that is incomparable to the risk of an individual committing voter fraud."

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Almost daily, the U.S. intelligence community warns of new threats from foreign adversaries like China, Iran, North Korea, and, of course, Russia — countries that benefit when the U.S. is in the throes of chaos.

"They all have big interest in the politics and direction of the U.S. because their countries' political aspirations depend on what we do," said Michael Geraghty, the director of the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell.

It isn't just about hacking into a voter registration system, even though "the integrity of that is the most important thing that we can protect," Geraghty said. All sorts of other disruptions are a concern, too.

"Simply having a malware or ransomware attack on a county government or state government leading up to the election is really important," Geraghty said, "because it will throw into question the integrity of the election system."

Another threat he said is the possibility of a hack of the tallying systems on election night, leading to confusion surrounding actual results.

The bottom line: this can be a very confusing time as we approach one of the most pivotal and historic elections in modern history.

Norden said, at the end of the day, Trump may be doing nothing more than trying to erode voters' faith in the system in order to keep them from voting at all.

"Once you lose that faith — once people don't believe that we actually have the consent of the governed — democracy falls apart," Norden said.

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