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Russia is working to undermine confidence in voting by mail, DHS warns

Letter carriers load mail trucks for deliveries at a U.S. Postal Service facility in McLean, Va., in July. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Russia is seeking “to undermine public trust in the electoral process” by spreading false claims that mail-in ballots are riddled with fraud and susceptible to manipulation, according to a new intelligence bulletin by the Department of Homeland Security.

Many of the claims made by Russian sources are identical to repeated, unsupported public statements aired by President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr, who have said that mailed ballots aren’t trustworthy while warning of the potential for rampant fraud in November’s elections.

Barr claims a man collected 1,700 ballots and filled them out as he pleased. Prosecutors say that’s not what happened.

Homeland Security’s intelligence office has assessed that Russian actors “are likely to promote allegations of corruption, system failure, and foreign malign interference to sow distrust in Democratic institutions and election outcomes,” the bulletin states. Russia spreads these claims through a network of state-controlled media, proxy websites and social media trolls, it adds.

The document doesn’t identify any of those media sources by name. But current and former officials who have seen the assessment said it is based in part on classified intelligence about the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2020 elections, in a repeat of its operations four years ago, which intelligence agencies have unanimously concluded were designed to help Trump win.

The intelligence on Russian efforts to undermine voting by mail has been assessed as credible and was deemed important enough to share in an unclassified form Thursday with state and local officials so that they can take steps to protect elections from manipulation, the current and former officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information was not intended to be shared publicly.

The bulletin doesn’t cite any particular statements by Trump, Barr or other U.S. officials, but it states that Russia is “amplifying” claims that mail-in voting is prone to fraud. This week, Trump, who has railed against mail-in balloting for months and said it could help Democrats win elections, urged voters to cast ballots twice, by mail and in person, to ensure that their votes are counted. Intentionally voting more than once is illegal, and in many states it is a felony.

On Wednesday, Barr said in an interview with CNN that “elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud and coercion.” Barr pointed to a case in Texas in which he said the United States had indicted someone who had collected 1,700 ballots from eligible voters and “made them out and voted for the person he wanted to.” But federal prosecutors brought no such indictment.

Claims about ballot fraud are belied by numerous studies that show it is so rare as to be essentially irrelevant to conducting fair, accurate elections. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, millions more Americans are expected to cast votes by mail this year rather than stand in line at polling places, where they might be susceptible to contracting the virus.

ABC News first reported on the DHS bulletin Thursday.

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Russia may also have tried to undermine confidence among Black voters, the bulletin states. Russian media sites and their proxies “highlighted reductions in the number of in-person polling places in large cities due to the pandemic and the long lines this caused, claiming this would disproportionately suppress voting among African Americans and expose them to the spread of Covid-19,” the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

A spokesperson for the department’s intelligence office, who would not comment directly on the bulletin, said that “foreign influence activities designed to manipulate American audiences are among the most challenging threats facing our country.”

“We continue to release intelligence on foreign influence activities — we never stopped — including those targeting U.S. elections and democratic processes, with a constant commitment to doing so with increased timeliness, quality and quantity,” the spokesperson said.

The bulletin provides a level of detail about Russian efforts that has rarely been heard publicly from Trump administration officials about this year’s elections. Democratic lawmakers have criticized the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for not releasing more details publicly and for not briefing members of Congress in person about election security threats.

Last month, a senior ODNI official in charge of protecting elections from outside interference referred to “a range of measures” Russia was taking, including the use of a pro-Russian lawmaker from Ukraine — who has met with Trump’s personal lawyer — “to undermine former vice president [Joe] Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”

The statement didn’t mention Russia’s attempts to cast doubt on mail-in ballots.

Democratic lawmakers criticized the statement for appearing to equate Russia’s covert intelligence operations with overt political efforts by China to influence U.S. policy positions. Lawmakers who have seen classified intelligence said China’s efforts aren’t comparable to Russia’s attempts to manipulate and mislead voters.

Russia has been trying to undermine mail-in balloting for at least the past six months, according to the DHS bulletin.

“Since March 2020, Russian state media and proxy websites have denigrated vote-by-mail processes, alleging they lack transparency and procedural oversight, creating vast opportunities for voter fraud.”

In the past, investigators and federal prosecutors have pointed to the Kremlin-run RT media network as well as the website Sputnik as primary conduits for Russian disinformation. Last year, the special counsel investigating Russian election interference in 2016 brought charges against Russian hackers working for the Internet Research Agency, a propaganda and disinformation outfit based in St. Petersburg.

The DHS bulletin cites actions Russia took as recently as a few weeks ago.

“Russian state media and proxy websites in mid-August 2020 ­criticized the integrity of expanded and universal vote-by-mail, claiming ineligible voters could receive ballots due to out-of-date voter rolls, leaving a vast amount of ballots unaccounted for and vulnerable to tampering.”

Russia is also exploiting concerns that mail carriers may be unable to handle a deluge of mail-in and absentee ballots, according to the bulletin. “These websites also alleged that vote-by-mail processes would overburden the U.S. Postal Service and local boards of election, delaying vote tabulation and creating more opportunities for fraud and error.”