With the 2024 election cycle in full swing, citizens, experts and policymakers are worried about how artificial intelligence (AI) may influence the democratic process and potentially erode public trust in our elections. 

As AI technology advances, AI-generated political advertising and misinformation campaigns will become more common and cheaper to deploy. Research surveys of state and local government leaders have reported that election offices feel woefully underprepared for the security risks associated with the coming elections. While the effect on this year’s elections may be top of mind now, the long-term ramifications of AI and AI-enabled technologies are severe and multifaceted.

It’s not all bad news. Our nation’s cyber defenders have adopted AI-enabled technologies. They are working around the clock to find vulnerabilities in networks and systems at a much greater speed and scale than before, patching and remediating vulnerabilities. AI has the potential to improve accurate ballot counting and facilitate training for aspiring cyber professionals while simultaneously streamlining defender workflows so they can focus on the bigger threats.

But behind the scenes — and despite its many practical applications — AI could become a powerful weapon for bad actors who want to infiltrate and disrupt our election infrastructure and data. AI could allow malicious actors to scale their operations and launch sophisticated phishing attacks compromising crucial systems. 

This could mean using AI to compromise and infiltrate an organization or election office; to deny access to their networks, systems, or infrastructure; or to use it to amplify false or misleading information. Threat actors can also use their access to help adversaries collect intelligence on elections or spy on voters.

The adversary disregards party lines and aims to destabilize our electoral system and sow discord. Any indication that U.S. electoral infrastructure or systems have been tampered with could cast doubt on our electoral process by showcasing the insecurity of our voting systems. Espionage fueled by access to sensitive data (such as voter data or voter registration databases); the tampering with election technology and systems; and the alteration of voting records, databases, and results all loom as frightening scenarios. Threat actors could also generate further discord or distrust by manipulating data in those systems.

We couldn’t and shouldn’t let this happen. Our elections are only as secure as the technology that underpins them, and we already possess the tools and know-how to ensure our elections remain secure. This means that cyber assessments, incident response and training, and cyberattack simulation exercises are all still crucial elements to ensuring a secure election and should remain a priority despite the proliferation of AI-generated misinformation and disinformation.

To prepare for AI-enabled threats, we should first improve the cybersecurity of our infrastructure, network, systems and databases. The Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center can help by providing best practices, incident response checklists and access to cybersecurity tools to improve election infrastructure cybersecurity. 

The Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provides no-cost resources for state and local government officials and private-sector election infrastructure vendors. CISA also includes background information on tactics that foreign adversaries may use to manipulate elections and security training to improve their security and resiliency.

In addition to the legislative, regulatory and executive orders underway in Washington, educating lawmakers and citizens about artificial intelligence will be more important than ever. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s AI insight forums, which focused on how AI will change everything from art to elections to national security, have been a step in the right direction. However, we need to engage our elected officials and policymakers so they understand the potential implications of AI technology on society and how it will change how they govern. Meanwhile, voter education and engagement in the democratic process through trusted institutions remains vital.

It is imperative that election offices work with governments and industry to take the necessary measures to ensure the security and integrity of our election infrastructure, to instill within our citizens that our elections are trustworthy and viable, and not overlook the cyber risks that will persist while we are focused on generative AI’s malicious byproducts.