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Dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) are promising structural units for artificial muscles and robotic elements. Understanding the safe and failure mode regimes of such DEAs is essential for controlling the actuator. We develop an electrical characterization technique for obtaining information on the transient strain in the actuator and analyze the behavior of the actuator in safe and failure operation regimes, in particular in the pull-in instability mode. Additionally, the technique allows the strain-dependent measurement of the electrode resistance. The current measurement based technique can be also applied for actuator control with feedback loops.