With Election Day just a little more than a week away, the FBI’s Dallas field office is working around the clock to ensure the process is fair, and safe, for voters in North Texas.
NBC 5 Investigates has learned the bureau is activating a special center to monitor election security and safety, and FBI agents have been conducting table-top exercises in recent weeks with local elections officials across the DFW area.
Agents are also asking the public to help be on the lookout for social media misinformation campaigns that foreign or domestic groups may use in attempts to interfere with the election.
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In an interview with NBC 5 Investigates, the Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas Field Office, Matt DeSarno, said based on everything he has seen through weeks of preparation, voters should have confidence in the integrity of the elections process in the region.
“I am confident that their vote will count and that the votes will be counted accurately. I don't know that we will have an immediate result on election night. I certainly hope that we do. There may be a time delay based on a lot of factors,” DeSarno said.
With more votes cast by mail this year and a huge turnout expected, vote counting could take longer than normal. Possibly, even days in some states. Leading to concerns that either delays or reactions to the results could spark trouble in a highly divided country with emotions on edge.
ONLINE: Your Voter Guide for the 2020 November General Election is here, with information on Federal, State and Local Races
DeSarno said there could be groups that may look to such a moment to cause trouble. But, he said the FBI is prepared to respond quickly if that were to occur.
“If we receive information or if our partners receive information that there are individuals or groups who are attempting to use the election results or the lack of election results, lack of immediate election results to commit federal crimes or conduct violent activity, then we will aggressively pursue investigations," DeSarno said.
The Dallas FBI office sent a briefing memo to local law enforcement in September warning that violent extremists may ramp-up their rhetoric ahead of the election, including followers of “boogaloo,” an anti-government movement.
The FBI note, first made public in a report by "The Nation," noted that the gunman who attacked the Earl Cabell Federal Building in Dallas in June 2019 left behind a manifesto referencing boogaloo. It also said the FBI believes suspected boogaloo followers were present during protests in Dallas that turned violent this summer.
But at the moment, DeSarno said his office is not aware of any specific threats surrounding the election.
“We're certainly not aware right now, but we are on alert for that,” DeSarno said. “It's likely that there will be law enforcement presence around polling places, uniformed marked law enforcement presence around polling places, and maybe even more than what (people) remember in the past, and that should not be alarming in and of itself.”
He added that voters should not view the presence of law enforcement at a voting location as an indication that there is a threat to that location.
In recent weeks, DeSarno even recorded a video message to voters, posted on YouTube, in which he made a direct appeal to for assistance in combating social media misinformation campaigns surrounding the election.
“We encourage everyone to seek to understand the threat posed by these social media campaigns,” DeSarno said in the video.
Just last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced that Iran had sent intimidating emails to voters in Florida.
DeSarno said that the case highlights why it’s so important for people to verify e-mail messages and social media posts before sharing them with others and spreading false information.
“There's no question that people can easily unwittingly be part of a disinformation campaign,” DeSarno said. “And it's really challenging information environment that we're in.”
DeSarno said before re-posting a message he encourages voters to take extra steps such as checking their local county elections department website or looking to see if local news organizations have been able to independently verify the information.
In terms of the specific table-top exercises the FBI has been conducting in North Texas, DeSarno said he could not share any specific scenarios they are planning for. But he said, generally speaking, the sessions have been focused on things like protecting elections systems and responding to any concerns that might arise.
He encourages people to reach out to local police or to the FBI directly if they see disinformation or other potential threats.
“It's all of our responsibility to help protect this democracy,” he said.