AI disinformation, threats to poll workers top U.S. Senate panel list of election worries – News From The States

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WASHINGTON — Senators on the U.S. Senate Rules Committee expressed concerns Tuesday that poll workers may need protection and that artificial intelligence could interfere in the fall elections.

Leading members of the committee said AI has already been used to promote disinformation that has interfered with elections, while elections workers have for years experienced intimidation. Both issues seriously threaten election integrity, the senators said.

“We are very concerned about what we have seen in just snippets of ads and videos that have gone out that attack candidates on both sides of the aisle, but they are complete deep fakes and not the actual candidate and you can’t even tell it’s not the candidate,” Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said AI is already being used to interfere with elections, noting voters in New Hampshire received a robocall in the voice of President Joe Biden telling them not to vote in the state’s presidential primary.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who also chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he is concerned that intelligence agencies have indicated that “we are potentially less protected as we go into 2024 in terms of the security of our elections than we were during 2020.”

“That’s a pretty stunning fact,” Warner said.

Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet expressed similar concerns and said he’s not surprised by the threat to democracy that AI can pose, especially on social media platforms.

“Every single one of these platforms, I think, virtually, has been used to spread … disinformation,” he said.

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, said Michigan is focused on two things for the upcoming election: “fighting deception and misinformation about our elections and protecting the people who protect democracy.”

Benson expressed concern about how AI could be used to spread disinformation.

“I am also worried AI will make it easier to create and distribute hyperlocal disinformation that misleads voters about the voting process or conditions at their specific polling site,” she said.

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, asked Brian Kruse, the election commissioner of Douglas County, Nebraska, what unique challenges he faces in preparing for elections.

Kruse echoed concerns about disinformation, saying AI could be used to impersonate him or generate an incorrect polling location.

He said having trust in the community and with voters is important so that “when issues do occur, you can contact them and get the correct information out.”

Worker safety

State and local elections officials also told the committee they struggled with threats to election workers.

Benson advocated for Congress to make it a federal crime to harm an election worker. She argued that many jurisdictions can’t afford private security to protect election workers who are threatened.

“They are regular people, our neighbors and community members, civil servants who drive themselves to town hall meetings, who go back and forth to their offices and homes, often dropping off or picking up children and groceries along the way,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia asked Benson how threats to election workers impact their work.

“Not only does it cause us to fear going to work… it takes us away from the actual work of administering elections every time we need to issue protections or think about our own safety,” Benson said.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said he’s been hearing from officials in his state about the difficulty to recruit election officials. He asked Benson if she was seeing that in Michigan.

“Yes, and it has (been difficult) since the 2020 election cycle,” Benson said.

Isaac Cramer, the executive director of the Charleston County Board Of Voter Registration and Elections in South Carolina, said more than 70% of the state’s election directors have left their posts since 2020.

Cramer said as Charleston County prepares for the 2024 election, his office’s main concerns are protecting election workers, the security of polling places and the assurance of reliable federal funding.

He said that during the June 2022 primaries, “our polling places became battlegrounds for disruptive elements seeking to undermine the electoral process.”

He said one local group traveled to the various polling locations on Election Day and harassed poll managers and “called law enforcement to come to polling places and demanded they arrest our poll managers.”

Paper ballots

Several witnesses from GOP-led states touted their states’ use of paper ballots and voter identification laws.

Wes Allen, Alabama’s secretary of state, advocated for senators to change federal law to require voter ID. He also approvingly noted Alabama passed a law to use paper ballots and ban voting machines that connect to the internet.

Kruse also said Nebraska uses paper ballots so voting machines are not connected to the internet.

“There is a paper trail,” he said.

Kruse, of Nebraska, added that his state has increased the number of poll workers by creating a system to draft workers from a pool in a process similar to jury duty.

“Some advantages to drafting poll workers are increased community awareness of the election process, less difficulty in securing election workers, and a younger workforce with an average age in the mid-50s while the majority of poll workers nationwide are over 60,” he said.

Voting rights debate

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a separate hearing about protecting voting rights in the U.S. The first panel of witnesses included GOP Rep. Wesley Hunt of Texas and Democratic Sen. Raphael  Warnock of Georgia.

The chair of the committee, Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said the hearing needed to be held because of the “ongoing assault of voting rights,” and he advocated for the passage of a bill named for late U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, which would establish a new formula to require all states to get permission from the Department of Justice before making changes to voting laws or putting in place new voting requirements.

Lewis, who died in 2020, was a champion of voting rights and known for his advocacy during the civil rights era. He nearly died on “Bloody Sunday,” marching with other advocates from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery in 1965.

With Republicans in control of the House, the bill is unlikely to receive a vote in that chamber, even if the Senate manages to garner the 60 votes needed.

The bill, which would restore a requirement of the Voting Rights Act that certain states receive preclearance from the federal government before changing voting laws, has failed to pass several times.

The Supreme Court stripped the preclearance requirement in a 2013 decision.

Republicans, then-Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III blocked an attempt in 2022 to change Senate rules to allow the bill to pass with a simple majority vote.

There are currently no Senate Republican co-sponsors of the bill.

“Across the country the right to vote is under assault,” Warnock said.

He pointed to his own state of Georgia, which overhauled its voting laws after the 2020 election that sent two Democratic senators – Warnock, the state’s first Black senator, and Ossoff, its first Jewish senator – to Congress and the state’s electoral votes for President Joe Biden.

The top Republican on the committee, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, pushed back, arguing that states should be allowed to pass their own voting laws.

He added that while Republicans “admire the name John Lewis and his heroic efforts during the 60s,” GOP lawmakers view that bill as an attempt to rewrite the Supreme Court decision in 2013 – a ruling that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. 

“You won’t find much support on this side of the aisle,” Graham said of the John Lewis bill.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning think tank, published a report in 2022 on how strict voter ID laws disproportionately impact voters of color.

Hunt, who is also Black, disagreed with Democrats and argued that voter identification laws don’t disenfranchise Black voters. He pointed out that he has several forms of government IDs.

“We don’t need a new solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Hunt said.

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