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How Vulnerable Is the US Presidential Election to Foreign Interference?

In this Q&A, Professor Eric Novotny shares his insights on foreign interference in US elections.

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As the 2020 US presidential election draws near, many wonder how vulnerable the US democratic process is to foreign interference. To learn more about this issue, we spoke with SIS professor and director for the US Foreign Policy and National Security program Eric Novotny, who also was appointed senior advisor, digital media and cyber security at the US Department of State.

Q: Foreign interference in US elections is nothing new. Why have countries tried to interfere in US elections in the past, and what tactics did they use?

By their very nature, governments have stakes in the selection of national leaders in other countries, especially where their security and interests are high. Governments have a wide range of instruments to exert such influence. These can be overt—such as direct policy statements or vague messaging about inevitable consequences. There is also a well-documented history of covert operations by some countries. These include clandestine support for particular political factions, leaking confidential information, and disinformation campaigns.

Political candidates can also invite implied support by meetings with foreign officials or statements about their policies, which might affect voter preferences. Examples in the US go back to the XYZ Affair during the presidency of John Adams. One of my favorite cases is the famous "Murchison Letter," which some historians claim lost Grover Cleveland the presidential election in 1888.

Q: The 2016 election brought the threat of foreign interference in US elections to the forefront of public consciousness. Since then, many have questioned whether or not that commenter they’ve been arguing with on social media is actually a Russian troll. What was it about the 2016 election that made the public more aware of the idea of foreign interference in US elections?

My assessment of the 2016 election can be traced to the leaks of documents, including emails from the DNC, notably originating from the compromise of John Podesta’s Gmail account. This was also a very close election, which could swing either way in the final weeks before election day. When the DNC compromise and other Russian-attributed activities surfaced, the notion of influence or other influence operations became national news. Other government officials were also compromised with influence operations carried out by Russian proxies.

Q: Is election interference by different countries widespread, and what tactics are they using?

Many countries have stakes in one another's elections, but fewer have the capabilities to mount sustained activities. What are not relatively expensive or technically tricky are called "perception hacks" in which doubt is cast on a small set of voting results in one state or locality, which in turn casts doubt on the entire process. These attacks are among the most dangerous because they are challenging to prevent or deter and amplify their political consequences far beyond any actual tampering with the vote.

Q: Do you think the US is more vulnerable to foreign interference now than it has been in the past? Why or why not?

Certainly, cyberspace—and in particular social media—has provided many more information or disinformation channels to reach large numbers of people. Some authoritarian governments, it appears, have realized they can use Internet freedom against other countries while trying to deny it to their citizens.

Q: In what ways is the US trying to counteract foreign interference in the 2020 election? And do you think enough is being done?

Designating the electoral physical and IT infrastructure by DHS was a significant step in the right direction. Many states are adding resources to their systems as well. To a large extent, if the problem is defined in terms of protecting that infrastructure, a decentralized and diverse set of systems is more problematic to attack successfully than a centralized one. Influence operations and compromises of confidentiality or integrity are much more difficult for defenders to prevent, deter, or remediate. These issues will be at the forefront of international politics now and for a long time to come.